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The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Accountability

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

Today’s article is by Dr. Elizabeth Vaughan Moyer, a current Air Force officer. She discusses accountability within organizations and gives practical recommendations.

Almost everyone agrees that accountability is essential for productivity. But what happens when the process of holding people accountable breaks down? The concept of accountability is reasonably simple: actions have consequences… good, bad, and ugly. But, far too often, we find ourselves in organizations where accountability is lacking.

A lack of accountability is rarely intentional. Recent Harvard Business Review articles highlighted various reasons for poor accountability, including unclear roles/responsibilities, leniency due to external stressors (reference major events like the global pandemic and racial inequalities), issues with crucial conversations, and setting unrealistic goals.

I wish I could boast about my successful record of holding people accountable. Unfortunately, I have learned a lot about how, with the best of intentions, you can miss the mark. Recently, a mentor challenged me to reflect on my unsuccessful accountability attempts. What went wrong? How should I have changed my strategy? Was there a common theme?

As I compiled my failed attempts into a case study, two main patterns emerged. First was my people-pleaser tendency. My style is management by consensus, so I am highly focused on building positive relationships and attempting to manage people’s impressions and interactions with me. As a result, I was slow to enter into conflict and correct minor issues before they grew. In particular, I noticed that it was harder for me to hold my peers accountable.

Secondly, there was a pattern of manipulative strategies. The people I worked with knew how to manipulate a situation to make accountability difficult. Some individuals used the “gift of gab” to distract and shift the focus from their lack of performance. Others used relationship skills to create alliances with upper brass and establish an “us versus them” mentality. One of my most challenging subordinates was a master of lying and denying actual events to mask poor performance. It was never, indeed, their fault.

While disappointed that I have sometimes failed to hold people accountable in the past, I am learning. Through coaching and counseling, I am more equipped to identify when I fall into a people-pleasing trap*. Recognizing manipulation in the workplace can be challenging, but there are specific questions you can ask yourself to help you navigate accountability:

  1. Did I give clear expectations? Did I then follow the rule to “inspect what you expect?” The enemy of accountability is ambiguity.** (See The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni)

  2. Have I identified the difference between performance deficiencies and misconduct? Note: there are different courses of action to correct performance versus conduct issues.

  3. Am I falling into any binary thinking traps? For example, compassion and accountability are not mutually exclusive.

  4. Do the individuals violate boundaries? Divert attention? Blame others? Argue that reasons can be excuses? (All of these are manipulation strategies.)

  5. How do I feel, both emotionally and physically? Decision fatigue is often a hurdle for leaders. Also, anger can poison the decision-making process. (Resource: Colin Powell’s 13 Rules of Leadership)

  6. When do I need to make this decision? Have I slept on it? Not everything is urgent and important.

  7. Who can I consult that has expertise in this area? I should not assume I am the first person (or the last!) ever to experience a problem like this.

As leadership guru Dr. John Maxwell preaches, “Good leaders ask great questions.” For those who have successfully held people accountable, what questions did you ask yourself? And what manipulative strategies have you identified and then addressed to ensure you hold people accountable?

*If you have fallen into the people-pleasing trap, stay tuned for an article sharing some of the strategies I have learned.

**A simple strategy to ensure clarity is to ask the recipient to repeat what they believe are the expectations. Communication breakdowns are common. However, beware of the few individuals who will use the excuse “I didn’t understand” as a way never to be held accountable.

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