What gardening can teach about organic accountability - SmartBrief

All Articles Leadership Management What gardening can teach about organic accountability

What gardening can teach about organic accountability

The childhood chore of weeding the garden taught Julie Winkle Giulioni a lot about accountability, especially when it comes to leadership.

5 min read



Astrakan Images/Getty Images

When I was a kid, my younger brother and I did chores in exchange for an allowance. While most have slipped my mind, there was one chore that stood out — as a bone of contention at the time and inspiration for leadership behavior much later. It was weeding the family garden.  This chore might stand out in my mind more than others because I always seemed to be doing it when the weather was lovely and there were so many other more compelling activities I’d rather be doing. And because of my parent’s approach to managing it. 

Julie Winkle Giulioni
Winkle Giulioni

My brother and I were each assigned part of the yard from which to remove weeds. I took my job seriously, carefully plucking or digging the garden intruders out from the root to reduce future effort. (Yes, I was also the kid who did my homework before going out to play!) My brother had a very different approach. He would turn the soil, hiding the weeds beneath the surface, so he could quickly return to his friends and the fun activities that awaited him. 

Despite investing more time, I felt good about what I’d done. Until a few weeks later when more gardening needed to be done and my parents decided to mix assignments up, giving my brother my carefully weeded patches and giving me his hot mess. While I didn’t have the language for it at the time, I understood what was happening: no accountability. And I felt the very real results of it.

Accountability grows engagement

Fast forward to today when accountability is recognized as an essential ingredient in engagement, individual performance and organizational success. And while many leaders have discovered how to instill accountability in their teams, others are struggling with some of the same challenges my parents faced decades ago. Frequently, however, the symptoms of an accountability problem are more subtle than a weedy flower bed. For instance, when was the last time a team member:

  • Came to you only with a problem — rather than a problem and proposed solution?
  • Threw an incomplete deliverable “over the wall” for someone else to handle?
  • Did something fast rather than right?
  • Blamed others for issues rather than taking responsibility?

When was the last time you felt compelled to:

  • Jump in and orchestrate an 11th hour fix?
  • Use technology to monitor your remote employees’ time and activity?
  • Follow up on late, missed, or impending milestones?  

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘”recently,” a lack of accountability may be to blame. Because of accountability’s outsized role in promoting productivity, driving results, enhancing engagement and building trust within teams, building accountability organically into the work represents one leadership action that delivers a range of positive outcomes and results. 

Applying a more organic form of leadership

The days of “do it because I said so” are long gone with today’s multigenerational and increasingly autonomy-seeking workforce. The traditional carrots and sticks that drove extrinsic motivation are giving way to intrinsic forces that more powerfully drive employee behavior.  Add to this the complexity of hybrid and remote environments where face-to-face time is limited and monitoring can be challenging — and what’s needed today is a more organic, employee-centric approach to accountability, that’s possible when leaders engage in these activities.  

  • Involve employees in goal setting: Rather than imposing objectives, find ways to engage others in developing plans and generating ideas for how to reach them.
  • Connect people with the big picture: Ensure that employees understand not just what they’re doing, but also the value it brings to customers/the organization and how others are affected if the task isn’t completed well.
  • Heighten ownership: Allow others to experience as expansive a sense of responsibility as possible for the task. Unlike my parents’ approach to changing up weeding assignments, create the conditions for employees to experience — and live with — the consequences of their work. (Knowing they’ll just have more weeds next week tends to inspire greater focus this week.)
  • Support self-monitoring: Empower employees to track their progress and hold themselves accountable through self-assessment and reflection as well as regular check-ins. 
  • Build self-sufficiency: Resist the urge to solve problems for employees. Instead, encourage reflection, ask questions and support experiments (and even mistakes) as you encourage others to discover their solutions independently. 
  • Allow employees to define and drive follow-up: Once goals and plans are clear, give employees the autonomy to determine the nature and frequency of communication and support required for success. 
  • Liberally recognize accountable behaviors: Help others build constructive habits by shining the light on positive behaviors. Expressing appreciation and drawing attention to accountable acts communicates their importance and impact — helping that person and others behave similarly in the future and cultivating a broader culture of accountability.

External, administrative systems aren’t sufficient to inspire accountability in today’s complex, increasingly autonomous and distributed workplace. Instead, leaders should plant the seeds of organic accountability within individual employees if they want to see engagement, performance and results grow.


Julie Winkle Giulioni is a champion of growth and development in the workplace, helping leaders and organizations optimize the potential of their people. Named one of Inc. Magazine’s top 100 leadership speakers, she’s the author of the bestseller “Promotions Are So Yesterday” and co-author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want.” Learn more about her work at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


Subscribe to SmartBrief’s FREE email newsletter on leadership. It’s among SmartBrief’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.