A Better Definition of Accountability in the Workplace

April 28, 2021
April 28, 2021 Jamie Notter

Please don’t google “definition of accountability in the workplace.” I just did, and the results are seriously disappointing. The posts and articles aren’t horrible, and they raise sensible points like accountability shouldn’t be about punishment and that it’s somehow about “taking responsibility” for actions and decisions. That’s all fine, but it’s also kind of scattered, and that’s why accountability has become an Inigo Montoya word—you keep using it, but I do not think it means what you think it means.

And dictionary definitions don’t really help, because the word itself was long in use before we had the workplace context, and it has its root in counting and numbers, which ends up being distracting. I actually think workplace accountability needs its own separate definition. Because we all have an intuitive feeling that we need more accountability in the workplace, and if we had more/better accountability, we’d be performing better. I want us to take that out of the realm of intuition and into the realm of the clear and tangible.

So here’s my crack at a definition:

WORKPLACE ACCOUNTABILITY: the creation and maintenance of a system that ensures agreed-upon results within a particular functional area (or the organization as a whole) are achieved.

Accountability is not just about doing what you say you’re going to do, or admitting failure when you don’t. Accountability in the workplace is a system that is designed to make sure results are delivered. That can certainly include a record of who’s going to do what, and a conversation when things don’t happen as promised. But those elements are part of an overall system designed to ensure that the results come through. Accountability itself is fundamentally about the health and functioning of that system. So the phrases we use in the workplace around accountability should be defined in that way:

  • To hold someone accountable = to make sure they’ve got their system in place and that it’s working, or to insist that they perform their agreed-upon role/function within that system.
  • To be accountable = to put the system in place and make sure it’s working, or to perform your agreed-upon role/function within that system
  • To improve accountability = build systems that work better and faster or improve discipline in role performance within the system.

So if you are “in charge” of anything, that means you need to build and maintain an accountability system. Here are some tips:

Get clearer on results. “A successful annual meeting” is not clear, and it will be very difficult to build an accountability system around that, since everyone will have a different definition of what those results look like. We advise clients to define results as binary outcomes whenever they can—either we did it, or we didn’t. You won’t always hit the target (if you do you’re aiming too low), but it makes it much easier to build the accountability system.

Get better at metrics, particularly leading indicators. A big piece of accountability systems is transparency—making things visible along the way. It’s not about “busting” people if their numbers are off. It’s about seeing which numbers INDICATE that there might be a future problem with the results. Good leading indicators are a hallmark of a good accountability system.

Identify the “stucks” sooner. A good accountability system has a simple process that enables people to say they are stuck. We use software called Align as part of our system, and in our DAILY meetings we have a place where I can call out another employee who is holding me up on something. Again, this isn’t about “busting” them. It’s just that there are a lot of moving parts, and the entire system can be thrown off by even a short delay. By making those stucks visible, we simply reduce the delay (and improve the results).

If you don’t have an accountability system, start building one today (and let us know if we can help).


Photo by Sam Moqadam

Jamie Notter

Jamie is a co-founder and culture strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders create amazing workplace cultures that drive greater performance and impact. He brings thirty years of experience to his work designing and managing culture, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is the co-author of four popular business books, including the award-winning Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement, and his fall 2023 release, Culture Change Made Easy. He holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.