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How leaders can inspire accountability

Leaders can struggle with accountability when it feels like a threat. Here's how to make accountability into a positive, supportive goal.

5 min read


Inspire accountability

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Whether it’s customer complaints, patient safety issues, lack of talent attraction or unwanted turnover, workplace problems can be overcome by increasing accountability, but not if the word if the word accountability equals threat. Here are five ways leaders can inspire accountability so that they support the team and dramatically improve results.

Reimagine accountability

The word accountability has become synonymous with blame: being “held accountable.” Instead of equating accountability with fault, think of accountability as measurement with a witness. The measurement is the tool of accountability that tells you whether you are ahead, behind, too big, too little, enough or not enough, meeting standards or not.

A tool is not enough to promote accountability. Real accountability requires a witness — a human being other than yourself who’s responsible to the results. Accountable leaders should not rely completely on a document or a checklist, but on confirming the results.

The bottom line: Accountability is not about blame. Accountability is about measurements that are confirmed by a light hands-on leadership approach. While many leaders worry about being called a micromanager, there’s a wide gap between micromanaging and having a light hands-on approach. Trust, but verify.

Reward initiative

Employee initiative is a sign of an accountable culture. Employees who take initiative think ahead, anticipate change, head off problems before they become catastrophes. Employee initiative equals ownership. Employees who don’t take initiative are order-takers. They do the minimum. They try not to make waves. They often protect themselves by hiding mistakes.

The bottom line: The employee who takes initiative is invested in their job, and they take ownership. They seek feedback in the way of accountability because they understand that accountability is about improvement not punishment. Initiative should be taught, expected, and rewarded.

Increase resources

A lack of resources can be a barrier to performance, teamwork, productivity, customer service, talent attraction and talent retention. One example: A barista quit her job at a coffee shop because the manager wouldn’t spring for a mat to stand on. Another example: At a long-term health facility I was visiting, residents often go without cold water.

At first glance, it might appear to be indifference, lack of staffing or poor supervision. The underlying issue: Lack of resources.  With only one ice chest for three hallways, it’s a long walk to get ice. It’s easier to be busy somewhere else.

In a difficult industry where understaffing is the norm, investing in a couple more ice chests and a part-time volunteer to keep them filled could be the difference between retention, attraction and an angry patient advocate who makes a complaint to the state.

The bottom line: Give your employees the resources they need to do the job effectively. If you want to retain workers and attract new talent, invest in the resources to make the job enjoyable and easy.

Develop front-line leaders

The problems at the front line of leadership are very basic. New leaders struggle with identity when first promoted. They make ineffective decisions, or feel their decisions are not supported at the top.

Unseasoned leaders don’t know how to initiate difficult conversations. They don’t know how to self-regulate during conflict during conflict. They hide their challenges from upper leaders because they fear looking incompetent. They don’t make the connection between their role and the outcomes expected. 

The bottom line: Leadership development is not about leaving a group of first-time supervisors in a conference room to watch a video series or take a one-time workshop. Development includes an orientation period, as well as a process of skill-building, coaching and accountability until the new leader has the confidence and competency needed to excel.

Balance choice and responsibility

Where there’s a gap in accountability, there’s an imbalance between choice and responsibility. There’s either too much choice and not enough responsibility, or too much responsibility and not enough choice. In practical terms, when a leader is given too much responsibility but not the authority (choice) to enforce their decisions, the imbalance creates unproductive conflict.

Many front-line leaders are disillusioned when they discover their hands are tied when it comes to enforcing policy, or properly giving performance feedback.

I’ve worked with government organizations that struggle with employee motivation and performance, and it’s easy to see why. No matter how well an employee performs, there’s pressure to give only a three out of five on the (yearly) performance evaluation because there’s no budget for raises. The poor performers get a 2.5 so they don’t ruffle feathers in the union.

When the system is flawed because of an imbalance of choice and responsibility, you get compliance, but not accountability.

The bottom line: The systems and processes that promote accountability must work for the leaders instead of the leader’s finding ways to work around the system. When a leader is responsible for results, the system must work for them, not against them.


Accountability doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Leaders at every level can inspire accountability when accountability is reimagined, initiative is rewarded, resources are increased, leaders are properly developed and the systems of choice and responsibility are balanced.

Marlene Chism is a consultant, executive educator and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and the forthcoming book From Conflict to Courage (Berrett-Koehler 2022). She is a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform. Connect with Chism via LinkedIn or at

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