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accountability is key in company culture

Is Accountability A Key Element of Your Company’s Culture?

Accountability at work means being willing to take ownership of performance and be answerable for outcomes. It’s a trait business leaders need to see in their employees for their companies to succeed.

But as vital as accountability is for success, suggesting that CEOs should build it into their organizational culture may seem incongruous. After all, employees crave a unifying, inspiring, and supportive workplace environment. And accountability often conjures a negative perception of toeing the line, accusations, and retribution. Many workers associate the word with previous unpleasant experiences, and it makes them cringe.

Yet, when handled properly, accountability can help employees thrive. If leaders anchor their culture in positive accountability instead of wielding it like a weapon, their staff will embrace it because this foundation benefits everyone. Healthy cultures rooted in accountability drive productivity, collaboration, and employee engagement, leading to profitability.

Old School Accountability

There are a few reasons why accountability has negative connotations. Leaders often held accountability over employees’ heads to induce higher performance in the previously standard command-and-control business structure. This model backfired, and as former E-Myth CEO and author Jonathan Raymond writes for Forbes, it imbedded a prevailing belief:

“We have a deeply held association between accountability and punishment — instead of considering it a tool to help people unlock their highest self.”

This universal mindset is why many employees equate accountability with blame, making them defensive and wary. When management says they will hold them accountable, workers often point fingers and hide mistakes to avoid being penalized.

In a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, Navalent co-founder Ron Carucci offers another reason accountability triggers pessimistic reactions.

“The fundamental problem with accountability is that it now involves little more than the process of accounting. The scorekeeping nature of this process yields a built-in negativity bias, where leaders reflexively hunt for shortfalls, and the tallying usually ends with a forced categorization — a rating system of numbers or labels, sometimes stack-ranking employees against their peers.”

Additionally, Carucci cites Gallup’s findings that 70 percent of employees don’t think their managers evaluate them objectively. Unsurprisingly, only 14 percent of employees feel their performance is managed in a way that motivates them.

Positive Accountability

Old-school accountability doesn’t work. However, building a culture where accountability is used constructively will net positive results for employers and their staff. A report for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management states that positive accountability leads to:

  • Improved performance
  • More employee participation and involvement
  • Increased feelings of competency
  • Increased employee commitment to the work
  • More creativity and innovation
  • Higher employee morale and satisfaction with the work

The report explains further:

“These positive results occur when employees view accountability programs as helpful and progressive methods of assigning and completing work. For example, managers who involve employees in setting goals and expectations find that employees understand expectations better, are more confident that they can achieve those expectations, and perform at a higher level.”

When appropriately implemented, employees stop fearing accountability and view it through a different lens.

In Mark Samuel’s book, The Accountability Revolution, he distills the underlying benefit of what happens to people who take ownership of outcomes—they achieve at a higher level. Accountability, he claims, is power. Samuel says performance rises because “accountability is the basis for having an environment of trust, support, and dedication to excellence.”

Cultivating a Positive Accountability Culture

A company’s culture is a composite of multiple behaviors that dictate how the business functions. To develop a culture that drives organizational and individual success, leaders must first identify, define, and model the behaviors they want their employees to embody. Codifying preferred behaviors creates a “common language” to describe specific actions and attitudes that generate optimal results.

Leaders should focus on behaviors that will create and reinforce a culture of positive accountability, including:

  • Establishing clarity about expectations
  • Delivering results
  • Having a solution focus
  • Honoring commitments
  • Committing to quality
  • Being proactive

These and other defined behaviors that generate accountability become the gold standards for staff members at all levels. Employees will want to embody the behaviors because they are positive characteristics that will make them successful. Leaders should present them as assets and coach their team members on mastering them.

Ron Carucci talks about processes leaders can use to foster accountability in their companies:

“These are the formal and informal ways that leaders talk about, assess, and affirm the contributions of those they lead and the improvements they can make to strengthen those contributions. They include everything from annual performance appraisals to routine check-ins with your boss.”

He advises leaders to reevaluate how they develop accountability within their workforce and identifies three things they should keep in mind as they interact with employees.

  • Dignity
  • Fairness
  • Restoration


In his HBR article, Carucci cites research from the Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry that proves how the opinions of others impact our self-esteem. So, instead of taking a hardline approach to holding their people accountable, it makes much more sense for leaders to “create conditions in which people make their best contributions.” He writes that taking this approach improved two important foundations of accountability:

  • Connections between leaders and direct reports deepen
  • The quality of feedback and learning increases


Carucci and his team also discovered some interesting data after conducting a study of hundreds of organizational assessments. He writes:

“When accountability systems are seen as fair, people are four times more likely to be honest (especially about their mistakes), act fairly toward others, and serve the organization’s purpose instead of their own interests.”

He notes that prioritizing fairness in accountability processes facilitates two vital shifts. First, it re-establishes the connection between a contribution and the contributor. He explains that employees find it invalidating and unfair when leaders separate the evaluation of their work from the evaluation of people.

Secondly, Carucci points out that focusing on fairness exposes biases within accountability systems. He points to research that shows that many accountability systems are rife with implicit bias.


Employees respond more positively when accountability processes are used to help them grow rather than just tallying up shortcomings and successes. Doing this requires leaders to address failures in a forward-thinking way. Carucci quotes Microsoft’s Chief People Officer Kathleen Hogan, who has introduced this concept in her organization.

“Being open about failure helps us balance a growth mindset with accountability. We are learning to not just reward success, but also reward people who fell short while getting us closer. Learning from our mistakes gets us closer to our desired results — that’s a new form of accountability for us.”

This shift in emphasis is treating mistakes restoratively rather than punitively. It’s a learning curve for many in managerial roles that requires more patience and a willingness to help people reach their potential. Organizations that adopt this approach will make employees more receptive to feedback and more confident to take action to improve.

Leaders who establish positive accountability as the foundation of their culture and activate it with dignity, fairness, and restoration will energize and motivate their staff. Accountability becomes something people are proud of instead of something they dread. And it empowers them to grow more confident, competent, and engaged as they move personal and organizational goals forward.