4 Ways to Cultivate Human-Centered Accountability in Your Organization

by | Leadership, Teams

When I teach organizations how to build self-managing, high-performing agile teams, one question ALWAYS comes up. It’s always a variation on: but how will we hold people accountable?

Accountability — it’s an always-favorite buzzword in the workspace. A panacea for the myriad of challenges your organization is facing. That one employee or team that never seems to pull their weight? That onerous task that never seems to get done? Throw some accountability on the fire and marvel as your teams start soaring through their to-do lists.

Only it’s rarely as simple as that because the truth is, most people misunderstand what accountability is, and as a result, actually end up making themselves — and their organization — less accountable for results.

What accountability is not.

I recently held a coaching session that centered on the topic of accountability and when I threw the “what does accountability mean to you” question into the room, the answers were interesting.

For some of the people present, accountability was inextricably linked with a culture of blame or judgment, where attempts to hold people accountable often come wrapped in disappointment or accusation at those who aren’t — for whatever reason — pulling their weight or bringing their best selves to their workplace.

For others, accountability is an unhealthy comparative. A stick to beat people with when their results aren’t quite as high as those of your highest performer. A concept necessarily rooted in hierarchy.

But pretty much everyone, in one way or another, related accountability in terms of key performance indicators (KPIs), of boxes being checked, of numbers reached, of hours logged.

I understood their responses. Typically, this is exactly how we approach accountability —with an emphasis on output. Which is why so many organizations face disappointment when they expect accountability to be the magic ingredient for increasing team or organization-wide effectiveness.

Because here’s what accountability should really be about: collaboration, impact and outcomes.

Accountability = outcomes not output.

There’s no doubt about it — numbers, KPIs, and data are important. We all need benchmarks to help us see where we are now, where we need to go, and if we are making progress.

But when we hold people to nothing more than KPIs we miss vital pieces of the success puzzle.

One leader I work with gave a perfect example of why a focus on numbers can be misleading. His top performer was bringing in an outstanding amount of sales — and doing even more pitches to pull in those sales.

But here’s the thing: he was pitching to everyone. He was pitching to previous clients who’d already put their accounts on hold for valid reasons, clients who had already made a commitment to come back at a later date, potential clients who weren’t a great fit for his organization. In short, he was throwing so much spaghetti at the wall that a lot of it was bound to stick. But he was also damaging the organization’s relationships and reputation in the process. And he was creating an unrealistically high benchmark for his peers to have to hit if the focus were to remain on output.

Wisely, his manager knew the value of outcome over output, and caught this problematic trend early. He was able to look beyond the basic KPIs and see the bigger picture. He could then coach this team member into a more targeted approach to his pitching, leading to better outcomes for clients, other team members, and for the organization as a whole, and doubtless saving this high performer from potential burnout!

And here’s where the accountability factor comes in: when you prioritize outcomes over output, when you hold people to more than just the numbers, it’s the actual results that matter more. The way you approach accountability necessarily changes. It becomes less about judgment and blame, less about comparing individual results, and becomes far more human-centered.

The focus shifts and you start to think about how you can help people be their best selves. It becomes a growth opportunity, a shared responsibility. It becomes a way of helping people find meaning in their work and establishing more trusting and respectful relationships within your organization.

4 ways to cultivate human-centered accountability in your organization.

1. Get extremely clear on your desired outcome.

Accountability is a shared responsibility for the outcome; it’s about holding one another to account for bringing our best, for being ready for the work ahead, and for doing what we need to do to learn and grow and to achieve great results..

You can only do that — individually and collectively — if you’re clear about what the desired outcome actually is. Because if the outcome is unclear, if it hasn’t been well-articulated, if people aren’t certain about their role or the expectations placed on them, then good intentions go out of the window and accountability quickly turns to judgment.

So, as a leader, it’s vital to think about how you’re clarifying the desired outcomes. Are you creating the right kind of space for the team to understand the problem? What are you doing to ensure everyone is clear on the expectations and priorities? What can you do to help your team build the problem-solving skills they’re going to need to achieve this outcome?

Think too, about your individual responsibility in achieving the desired outcome. Because, while you’re not accountable for anyone else’s actions, shared responsibility means you can never throw your hands up and say “it’s not my problem”. We’re all stewards of quality and stewards of the outcome, which means we need to care for it. When you’re clear on the outcomes, this becomes infinitely easier. You can focus on how you’re communicating with clients. You can think about how you can more effectively set expectations and translate that to your team.

2. Don’t shy away from the difficult conversations.

Conversations around accountability can be difficult, and it’s tempting to shy away from them or to put them off in the hope that the situation will resolve itself. But if a problem has been brewing for weeks and weeks, not bringing it up until everything is on fire is not healthy accountability. Accountability is not a big bang event.

Avoiding those fires comes from early (and regular) feedback conversations.

It comes from letting people know that while you appreciate the work they’re doing and the effort they’re bringing, you need something different from them. It comes from knowing that your people are inherently capable of hearing that, of assessing it, and ultimately of making adjustments to what they’re doing and moving forward in a way that will bring everyone closer to the outcomes you’re pursuing. And it comes from being able to offer the required support or creating an action plan as early as possible, without ever having to approach it in a manipulative or punitive way.

If you find these conversations excruciating (and I know many of us do!), there are two books that have helped me immensely: Radical Candor, by Kim Scott, which is full of templates to help you navigate difficult feedback conversations with grace and kindness, and Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny, which is also excellent.

3. Start with micro accountability.

I’m sure we’ve all been in team meetings where the person leading the meeting says something like, “Hey, we need to get this done. Can we all work on this?” And maybe the response will be a couple of nods, the odd “yes”…and a lot of silence. At this point, usually the group moves on.

We tend to accept the lack of dissent as a sign of affirmation — and then wonder why on earth the thing we asked everyone to focus on, still isn’t getting done.

The problem is, “can we all work on this?” isn’t an accountable question. In fact, it invites abdication, not because anyone is intentionally abdicating, but because it’s just thrown out to the ether. Unless you get a “yes” from every individual present, or someone steps forward and offers to take stewardship, you do not have a meaningful way to move forward and there will be no accountability to be found.

Getting concrete agreement to act from your team is an act of micro accountability. How can you rephrase your question so that you get a response from more than one person? My favorite way to get active feedback is through a Fist to Five vote. It’s quick. It provides micro accountability because it’s immediately obvious if someone is not participating. And it creates clarity. Here’s how it works.

  • Step A. Make a proposal or statement. “We should hold a town hall to announce this change.” “Let’s update our guiding principles to include this new statement.” It seems like moving our team meetings to the end of the week would help.”
  • Step B. Ask everyone in the group to show their level of agreement with the proposal by showing a number with their hand. A five means enthusiastic agreement all the way to a closed fist to show strong opposition. Generally a three means something along the lines of “I see minor issues that we can resolve later.”  Anything below a 3 means “I’m not ready to move forward.”

Once you’ve secured that dose of micro accountability, that positive agreement, it becomes easier to hold people accountable. You can go back and say, “remember when we talked about this? Remember when we made that agreement as a team?”

4. The cost of inaction.

When there’s a persistent gap in expectations and other accountability strategies aren’t paying off in the way you’d hoped, it’s time to have a conversation about the cost of inaction.

When people get myopically focused on their own work, it becomes hard to see how one’s own actions, or in the case, inaction, impact others.Forgetting to fill out that spreadsheet for the third week in a row might not feel like a huge deal to someone. But when they know that you’re wasting at least an hour every week chasing your team members to get those spreadsheets done, or even having to stay late to do it yourself, the cost of their inaction becomes more tangible.

When they understand the cost of inaction — whether the consequences affect them directly, affect people they work with, or affect the organization as a whole — it can connect the dots between expectations and reality in a more meaningful way.

Ultimately, if we stop viewing accountability as a burden, as a blame game, as a stick we use to shame ourselves and our employees into action, we can begin to see it for what it really is: a gift we offer one another. A way to encourage everyone to show up with graciousness and mutual respect as we work towards common goals for both ourselves and our organizations.

If you build a culture of healthy accountability, you’ll have a team that no one wants to leave (unless they’re ready for their next great opportunity, thanks to their experience on your team). Grab your copy of Lead A Team No One Wants To Leave for more practical action you can take right now. You can snag it right below (even if you are already subscribed).


“Helps me improve human, team, and business performance, every single time.” —Chief People Officer Health Tech Startup, has an abundance of important work to do and can't risk burning people out

“Jargon-free insights that I share all the time.” —Chief of Staff, Manufacturing, has no time for consultants with fancy frameworks

"I probably owe Brandi royalties for how many times I use her concepts.” —Partner, Management Consulting, knows that simplicity is harder than it looks

Real Work, Together

“Jargon-free insights that I share all the time.”

Join leaders from Target, Wells Fargo, The Hartford, IBM and many many more by signing up to receive Real Work, Together — Brandi's twice monthly newsletter that's packed full of useful, actionable content. You’ll be in great company.

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription.