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The Accountability Culture Formula – Improve Accountability in Your Team – 2

The Accountability Culture Formula

In the first installment of this series on improving accountability on your team, we talked about three surprises. We busted three myths.  And now we’ll look at the “how to” of creating an environment of accountability.

To be entirely too simplistic about it, there’s an Accountability Culture Formula. Leaders who implement this formula create an environment that inspires their team to profound accountability.

Let me be clear. This formula is not correct. Rather, it’s useful. The factors contributing to or degrading accountability culture are entirely too complex to cover exhaustively in a short leader’s guide. Therefore, this formula alone will not get you all the way to a culture of profound accountability.

Fear not! What this Accountability Culture Formula will do — we’ve seen it again and again — is help you come to a breakthrough in accountability among the people on your team. And that breakthrough alone will make a big difference in:

  • your company’s performance metrics 
  • your company’s revenue and profits
  • your company’s talent retention
  • and in your personal quality of life.

And who doesn’t want a better quality of life?

We’ve simplified the interdependent factors that lead to accountability. After all, simplicity leads to action. And this guide is worthless if it doesn’t lead you to action.

So here it is, a simplified accountability culture formula you can put to use today!

Clarity + Support + Challenge = Accountability Culture

With the rest of this guide, our aim is to give you insight into the components of this formula. Then, with that insight, you can act to operationalize clarity, support, and challenge. If you embed these components in the way you and your fellow leaders think about your operation, then I promise you a breakthrough in accountability on your team.

Clarity First

Reaching true clarity and mutual understanding is among the greatest challenges for any team. 

And gaps in clarity cost you traction.

The great wit and playwright, George Bernard Shaw, famously quipped, The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

That’s not just funny. It’s also true. For example, how often has someone told you, “Ok, I’ve done task X that you asked me to do.” And when you see their work, you can only think, “That’s not what I meant. That’s not what I asked for.”

Communication is hard. To illustrate this, Peter Drucker told us, “Communication is in what the listener does.” This means, we never truly have control over what we’ve communicated. Once the words leave our lips, our listener hears and interprets. They’re hearing and interpreting through the lens of their own understanding and experience. Their mood and their distractions color their interpretation. They’ve got their own context. And context creates meaning.

To Illustrate

Imagine a gun. Now put it in the hands of an aggressive criminal. That gun takes on a threatening meaning. 

Now take that same gun and put it behind glass in a Museum of Human Ingenuity. Its meaning is entirely changed. 

We leaders must remember that each mind — your mind, your direct report’s mind, your other direct report’s mind — each mind is its own complex context. Each mind receives the same message differently.

Once the message leaves our “email outbox,” we don’t know or control how it will be read or understood.

Therefore, we’ve got to take great care to ensure a high likelihood that what the listener takes from us is the message we’ve intended. As Steve Sims (the Real Life Wizard of Oz) says, “I don’t communicate to be understood. I communicate so it’s impossible that I’ll be misunderstood.”

We must communicate with thoroughness and precision.

To that end, let’s define some terms.

Clarity on Accountability 

Accountability means different things to different people. Heck, it means different things to the same people in different moments.

When you ask someone to, “be accountable,” you know what you mean. They think they know what you mean. Chances are very good, however, that your intended message and their perception of your message are not the same. You’re using the same word, but when you investigate one layer deeper, you’re likely not on the same page.

In fact, you’re not only on different pages about whether they’re accountable or not. You’re not even on the same page about what “accountable” means in this context.

Conflict ensues. Or people bury their feelings. Disagreement is hidden and resentment builds. And resentment degrades relationships — and performance. 

It can be hard regain the trust you’ve lost in one another.

What happens to trust in the context of misunderstanding and mistrust?

As a leader, you no longer have trust in their willingness to be responsible, honest, and forthright. And they no longer trust you to be fair, to have their back, to employ reason in your assessment of their performance.

Without repair, this marks the beginning of the end of a healthy relationship.

The Accountability Culture Formula-Within-the-Formula

Accountability — the great white light of responsible action in a relationship. Honesty, integrity, it’s the holy grail of employee characteristics. Without accountability, there can be no trust. There can be no confidence. There can be no transparency and teamwork.

 Agreed. And…

Accountability is white light indeed. It is illuminating. There’s a kind of purity to it. It sheds light into the dark places in our relationships and in our companies. And like white light, accountability is actually made of different components. 

We’d better define accountability.

Better yet, let’s break it down into its constituent parts.

When you break down actual white light, you reveal the rainbow’s colors — ROYGBIV. Accountability — at least the kind we want in our workplaces — is also a combination of components.


R: Responsibility = What is your job? 

The first ingredient of accountability is RESPONSIBILITY. Without clarity of what’s expected from your people, they will deliver what they believe is expected.

A team member’s responsibilities include (and are certainly not limited to) their job description. Responsibility is the sum total of what’s expected from you in your role. It’s those expectations that have been laid out for you in writing and verbally. And, unfortunately, it’s also all those things that are “common sense” and go without saying. 

Thing is… Nothing goes without saying. And everything worth saying is worth repeating.

You will have to repeat yourself if you want your team to clearly understand and remember their responsibilities. Period. 

I know, you want to say something once, and have your team take it up. I know you feel like a broken record when you have to say the same things over and over again. I know that what I’m suggesting here flies in the face of the leadership conventional wisdom that we all learned growing up. Whenever they had to repeat themselves, our teachers told us, “I’m not here talking for my health.”

When you accept that repetition is simply a part of great leadership, that our human brains retain that which is repeated, that repetition is a signal to the brain of importance (and that our brains interpret something not often repeated as not important), your frustration at having to repeat yourself will ease. Just like you’re not frustrated by the need to repeatedly brush your teeth.

Repetition is maintenance.

A leader’s responsibilities include clarifying and re-clarifying the responsibilities of those in their care.

You’ll have to iteratively spiral in on mutual understanding of what the responsibilities are of those on your team.

And every time the job responsibilities shift, there’ll be a new gap in clarity you’ll have to iteratively narrow. 

In order to inspire accountability, you need clarity around responsibilities.

R: Reliability = Do you do what you say you’re going to do?

RELIABILITY is the second ingredient of accountability. It’s every person’s job responsibility to track the commitments they’ve made and to honor those commitments. 

If I’ve told you, “I’ll bring you a red X by Wednesday at 3PM,” that’s a complex commitment.

To demonstrate reliability, I’ve got to do all of:

  • Have an X for you. A Y is not an X. I committed to an X, so nothing else will do. Not even an x.
  • Ensure it’s red. I told you it’d be red. A green one will not do. Green may be just as good to serve the purpose. Because it’s not consistent with the commitment, it does not reflect reliability.
  • Bring the X to you. If I have the X at my desk, I’m not done. I committed to bringing it to you.
  • Be on time! I told you it’d be done by Wednesday at 3PM. That’s part of what I said I was going to do. To be true to my word, timeliness is part of reliability.


  • Renegotiate. None of us can deliver every one of our commitments every time. The reliable among us will notify, renegotiate, consult about alternatives in advance of the deadline. A reliable person will communicate as soon as it seems remotely likely that there may be a problem with delivering 1) an X 2) that’s red 3) to you 4) on time.

You need clarity with your team around the expectation for reliability. Define what reliability means and that reliability is a responsibility. And you’ll need to recognize — out loud — both reliability that you see from your team — and its absence — every chance you get.

Of note, your team is reliable far more often than they are not, even the lowest performing among them. Ensure your feedback reflects that.

E: Effectiveness = Are you getting the results you intended?

EFFECTIVENESS is the third ingredient of accountability. As a leader, you’ll be more effective when you delegate the desired outcome (accomplish this result) rather than the means or method for getting there (do exactly this, like this). Either way, to be effective as a leader, you must impart to your team the desired outcome of the task, even if you’re also assigning the means.

If you and your people don’t have mutual understanding (in advance) of what results mark success, how will you come to an agreement about whether success was reached or not?

You need clarity around desired outcomes and how they compare to actual outcomes. You need clarity, that is, around what effective looks like.

Have you clearly outlined together, what will be the metrics of success? Once you have, you’ll be able to objectively assess together — minimizing the chances for destructive conflict — whether or not you’re looking at a successful effort. Clarity eliminates the need for judgment.

Effectiveness is. Or effectiveness is not. And the margin — the excess or the shortfall — can be measured. And corrective action can be planned.

O: Ownership = Are you willing and able to own a relationship between your actions and your outcomes?

When you take OWNERSHIP (ingredient four), you commit that it’s your responsibility to:

  • Ensure you have clarity on what your responsibilities are
  • Commit to your job responsibilities — fully and without secret reservation
  • Deliver and communicate on your commitments
  • Look at your results and compare them honestly to the desired outcomes
  • Make connections between your results and what you did — for better or for worse
  • Make adjustments to the actions you take going forward in order to close any gaps between the desired outcomes and your actual results

Ownership is a key and critical component of accountability because it is possible to know our responsibilities, be reliable to do what we said we were going to do, and still not be effective. Failing happens. The question of ownership is whether you blame circumstances or whether you embrace the truth. As Cy Wakeman puts it in her book, No Ego, “Your circumstances are the reality in which you must succeed.”

Why do some people fail and others succeed in the same circumstances with the same skills?


Only when one owns their influence on their outcomes will they adjust their strategy and tactics in order to achieve better outcomes.

Supposedly, Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” That he never said it doesn’t matter. It’s not true anyway.

What’s true is that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is a symptom of a lack of ownership. 

Once you embrace the reality of your circumstances… When you commit to adjusting yourself to unchangeable reality rather than excusing failures (past and future) because of circumstances… Then and only then are you fully accountable and therefore capable of achieving ever greater effectiveness.

Ownership Makes Iteration Inevitable

Remember the potential exists that people can renegotiate the shared understandings between them and come to new ones.

Responsibilities may change. 

For example, we worked with the leaders of a company where a top performer was failing to meet some of his job responsibilities. He not good at taking notes and reporting on his activity and outcomes. The sales leader and CEO were both frustrated that this top-performing sales person was neglecting an important part of his job. Therefore, leaders in the org agonized over whether to keep him.

Even though keeping records of his activity was Ryan’s responsibility, he was unreliable in meeting this obligation. And Ryan was also ineffective at it. When he did take notes, they were hard to follow and didn’t add much value to the organization. Ryan’s ADHD made this responsibility tough for him because the challenge was hard-wired. His reliability and effectiveness with record-keeping were therefore unlikely to change, even with great intention and effort. 

The solution, hidden in, “this is how we’ve always done it,” was simple. The company accommodated Ryan’s neurodiversity. Someone else in the company who was great at note-taking interviewed him about his activity once a day and took cogent notes in the CRM. Together, they were very quick, thorough, and effective.

In other words, they renegotiated Ryan’s responsibilities.

After that change of responsibility, Ryan became nearly 100% reliable. He met all the expectations that his leaders now had for him. His sales performance — already excellent — improved. So did his overall accountability.

Other folks may buck the system — the responsibilities — for completely different reasons. Some people are not reliable to the system, but are reliable to the results. They’re effective without being reliable. We call these people Mavericks

You have to decide for yourself whether you’re willing to tolerate Mavericks on your team. 

We have a soft-spot in our hearts for Mavericks at The Yes Works (most of us kind of lean that way ourselves). That said, you cannot allow Mavericks to run roughshod over their responsibilities and still expect to have a culture of accountability.

You’ll need to have a frank conversation. You’ll have to negotiate with them to devise a set of responsibilities that work for you both.

In other words, if you want the results a Maverick can deliver without compromising your team’s culture of accountability, then you must renegotiate the Maverick’s responsibilities.

Story Time

A friend who was a president’s club sales rep for a Fortune 1000 company was required by policy to be in the office to make sales calls every day at 8am. This chaffed for him. He often didn’t do it. Because, he said, it meant his day was less productive. He couldn’t make as many sales.

He had to waste time in driving to and from the office that was better spent driving to and from prospects’ offices.

So there was a constant tension between him and his boss and between him and his peers who didn’t sell as much as he did — and who were at their desks every day at 8am.

What his boss finally did was to change the responsibilities for sales reps — not just for my president’s club friend.

Anyone with sales under $X in the previous quarter was required to be at their desks at 8am. Anyone over $X had demonstrated they had a system that worked better for them, and so they were given greater latitude to bring in the business their own way.

Accountability came back into integrity in the office because Mr. President’s Club — the Maverick — was now reliable to his responsibilities, and ALSO effective.

If others wanted the same latitude he had, they knew how to earn it.

Clarity + Support + Challenge = Accountability Culture

In this second installment, we’ve covered clarity. Next time, we’ll get into Support and Challenge. And the equation will be complete. You’ll be ready to build a sustainably and thoroughly accountable team.

Why’s that matter?

With profound accountability, your company can take a leap in capacity almost overnight with the resources you have now.


The Exciting Conclusion of…

(This was installment 2 in this series on creating an Accountability Culture. See here for the first installment about three surprises about Improving Accountability in Your Team. Next, we’ll have a look at both support and challenge. We” investigate how they work in concert to free the brains of the people on your team to outsource self-interest so they can focus on contribution and communication so your company can surpass it’s current capacity. Click here for the final installment.)

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