A Culture of Volunteered Accountability: What if the Problem is Us?

05/12/2015 03:31 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016

Accountability is apparently a big problem. A 2013 survey of leaders by AMA Enterprise, a division of the American Management Association reported that:

  • 11% of survey respondents said more than 50% of their employees shirk responsibility.
  • 21% of business leaders believed the percentage of unaccountable employees ranged from 30% to 50%.

The strategies and steps for ensuring accountability are not new.

  1. Set and communicate clear expectations
  2. Align individual and team goals with departmental and organizational strategies and vision
  3. Provide time, training, tools, and resources
  4. Empower people to succeed
  5. Provide recognition and feedback
  6. Take action when individuals and teams do not meet expectations

And yet, the challenge of accountability continues.

Conventional wisdom is that accountability is a worker problem. Participants in my management and leadership programs lament the declining work ethic, decreased loyalty, and lack of pride in the work. They talk of employees who merely rent their jobs rather than taking ownership for them. For them, the solution is for managers to get tougher and dole out discipline to get their workers' attention.

What if conventional wisdom about accountability is wrong? What if the problem isn't employees? What if the lack of accountability is a leadership problem? And, what if that problem is rooted in how leaders think about their role in helping others succeed?

Mindset Matters

The difference between the leaders who inspire ownership and those from whom employees merely trade time for money has less to do with strategies and techniques and more to do with the mindset with which they approach their responsibilities. The best leaders are guided by the following beliefs:

  • Employees want to do a good job and succeed rather than shirk their responsibility.
  • Discipline should be taught and sustained rather than something done to mandate compliance.
  • Relationships - not position - are the ultimate tool for influencing the performance and results of others

Does It Work?

Think of a teacher, mentor, or coach who meant a great deal to you and answer the following questions:

  • Did that person expect more of you or less of you?
  • Did he or she treat you as if you wanted to succeed or simply do as little as possible to get by?
  • Did she or he actively help you acquire the knowledge, skills, and resources you needed to succeed?
  • Were you more likely or less likely to do everything in your power to meet his or her expectations?
  • If you didn't meet those expectations, were you more likely or less likely to respond positively and accept accountability for your performance and results?
  • Does that person still influence you today - even after you are no longer working with them?

One last question: Was your response to them and performance based on the authority of their position or on your relationship?

Leaders who struggle with the accountability of others view their job as mandating compliance from people who don't want to do a good job. Those who get accountability right know that most people want to do great work. They view their job as creating an environment where commitment and self-discipline are volunteered.

Here are three things you can do right now to build a culture of volunteered accountability:

  1. Adjust your mindset. There may be a few people on your team who don't want to do a good job, but that number is very small - probably 2 to 5 percent. Stop thinking of the 95 to 98 percent who want to good job as those who don't.
  2. Make sure you are doing your part. Review the six steps shared above. Be honest with yourself on areas where you are not fulfilling your responsibility and make a plan to improve. If you aren't sure, ask a direct report you trust for feedback.
  3. Focus relentlessly on relationships. The difference between mandated compliance and volunteered commitment can often be traced to the quality of the relationship between the leader and follower. People will do what they are told to do because it is their job. They will run through walls to succeed for a leader they trust and admire.

Employees show up on their first day at work wanting to take ownership and succeed. Somewhere along the way, there are those who decide to do as little as possible and shirk their responsibility. That happens because leaders assume that accountability is something to be mandated rather than nurtured and volunteered.

Randy Pennington is an award-winning author and a leading authority on helping organizations deliver positive results in a world of accelerating change. His keynote seminars and workshops are informative, engaging, and memorable. To learn more or to hire Randy for your next meeting, visit or call 972-980-9857.