Perhaps you have heard some of these responses from employees at your organization:

  • “I didn’t get it done, because I was buried.”
  • “I didn’t know that’s what you wanted.”
  • “They didn’t follow the process which made us miss the deadline.”

Placing the blame on others, producing the wrong deliverable, missing a due date and not letting others know capacity limitations soon enough are all potential signs of deficient accountability. After seeing these signs, it might get you thinking about what contributes to a lack of accountability and what can be done to address it. If so, you are not alone. In fact, 75% of the leaders that I have encountered mentioned a lack of accountability as a key challenge in their organizations. As I explored this accountability challenge, I asked these leaders two questions.

  1. How well were expectations understood by the individuals in the organization?
  2. What happened after the expectations were not met?

The most common answers to the first question were:

  • People should know how to do their jobs–I shouldn’t have to tell them.
  • I am pretty sure they understand the expectations.

While it could be argued that most people know the tasks they need to perform for their jobs, the expected outcomes of these tasks are not always apparent. According to research conducted by Wayne Hochwarter (Florida State University), less than 20% of employees indicated they knew with certainty what was expected of them at work each day. This left at least 80% of employees who were unsure of expectations and who subsequently reported:

  • 60% more mistrust regarding leadership communication
  • 50% higher overall work frustration
  • 33% greater probability of looking for a new job within the next year

Given these statistics, it goes without saying it would be beneficial for leaders (especially those who are “pretty sure” expectations are understood) to take a few minutes early on to clarify the expected outcomes.

The most common answers to the second question were:

  • I emphatically told them they missed the mark (e.g., read them the riot act or let them know they failed).
  • Nothing (there was no consequence).

With these two extremes being the most common responses to the second question, the key contributors to the lack of accountability at these organizations became more evident. Telling people they have dropped the ball is a form of feedback (a negative form of it), but it omits an essential ingredient that can lead to increased accountability. More specifically, it does not explain the impact of their lack of performance (e.g., increased costs, more re-work, longer cycle times, etc.).

While this partial feedback is not ideal, it at least lets employees know that they need to improve. If there is no consequence for deficient accountability in organizations, these organizations squander an opportunity to provide a powerful incentive that can foster improved performance.

While leaders cannot necessarily force employees to be accountable, they can create an environment that will increase the likelihood of accountability. Assuming that the employees have the needed skills to do their jobs, creating this environment involves establishing an employee-accountability linkage that is sustained over time. Building this linkage includes the following steps:

  • Clarification: Make expectations clear to employees while considering their perspectives
  • Awareness: Ensure that employees understand they can impact outcomes
  • Causality: Explain that the choices they make determine the outcomes
  • Ownership: Emphasize that they need to be comfortable with the consequences of their choices
  • Review: Gauge the quality of the employee-accountability connection in order to refine it

For more information, see A Question of Accountability: What Happens When Employees Are Left in the Dark? or Why Accountability is Key to Successful Workplace Flexibility.


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti