You can count on me.

Initially it may not seem that Accountability would be considered a motivator. The word “Accountability” is usually used negatively in the business world when describing someone who is not doing what they are supposed to do. It almost has an Old Testament kind of heaviness, “Thou shalt be held ACCOUNTABLE!”

When we say that a person is accountable what we likely mean is that they follow through on their obligations. It’s another way of saying that a person is responsible and that they can be counted upon to do what they said they were going to do.

Accountability is a very large part of a person’s self-image. Nobody wants to say, “You can’t count on me.” Accountability is also strongly associated with trust. The more accountable a person, the more they can be trusted. Each time that a person lives up to an obligation, they prove that they can be trusted.   Each time they don’t fulfill an obligation they jeopardize that trust. In the business world accountability can motivate a person to do something as trivial as showing up on time, to as important as ensuring a major project is delivered successfully. Accountability is often misunderstood because managers get the frame of reference wrong. Notice the difference between these two statements:

  1. I do what I say I am going to do
  2. I do what you say I am going to do

Guess which one results in a genuine feeling of accountability. Let me share a story to illustrate how this works. I was a “trainee agent” for my first couple of years in the insurance industry. Trainee agents were heavily managed and motivated through “the beatings will continue until morale improves” kind of method. I was at a meeting hosted by my bosses’ boss, a mid-level VP with a particularly self-important attitude. The company had launched a new life insurance campaign and were offering various (small) rewards for achieving one of three levels. Even the lowest level was a real stretch for me at the time.

This VP was working his way around the table asking each trainee which level they would commit to achieve. Each trainee dutifully responded, “level 3” and the VP would nod in a superior, “you’re a good boy” manner. When he got to me, I responded, “level 1”. Every head in the room swiveled to stare at me aghast. When asked why, I replied, “it’s unrealistic to think that I will increase from my current production pace to hit level 3, but with focus I believe that I can commit to level 1”.

To this day one of the other agents retells this story with awe, as if I was the lone protester standing down the tanks in Tiananmen Square. I was one of the only people in that room who was genuinely accountable because I had very clearly said that I would do what I said I was going to do.  Most of the others had simply been bullied into playing along and had no feeling of accountability for reaching an unrealistic goal that someone else told them to hit. Did I reach level 1? Of course! I said I would, and I did (especially after my display of dubious corporate politics skill).

The key to capitalizing upon accountability in the business world is to approach accountability from the positive angle it deserves. Instead of using accountability as a stick to bludgeon a person for failure it should be used to reinforce positive behaviors and outcomes. According to Tanner Corbridge and Jared Jones, reinforcing positive accountability increases happiness and employee engagement.[1]

If you want your team to feel accountable, include them in the goal setting process. You can create pressure by arbitrarily setting their goals, but you won’t create accountability. In order to capitalize upon the intrinsic motivator of accountability, you must have genuine commitment to meet the goals. Also, accountability isn’t just about BIG things. You can stoke the desire for accountability by acknowledging the little things too:

  • “Thank you for getting me your status report on time.”
  • “Excellent follow up on the Anderson account, they know you are looking out for them.”
  • “Your thorough preparation is always appreciated.”

Finally, don’t focus exclusively on outcomes (lagging indicators). Employees who are focused on, and feel accountable for, doing their jobs (leading indicators) are far more likely to reach their goals. Pave the way for long term success by creating visibility into these leading indicators so that they can feel that sense of accountability for their daily activity, not just for the end of the month numbers.


How Positive Accountability Can Make Employees Happier at Work, By Partners in Leadership, Tanner Corbridge (@TannerCorbridge), author and expert on driving organizational results through purpose and culture, and Jared Jones (@jaredjonesme), Senior Partner at Partners In Leadership. 

Seth Preus is an advisor to Mivation, and the creator of both Racing Snail and Leaderboard Legends.  As a thought leader, he uses his 25 years of experience in sales, software development and business ownership to change the equation from “How can I get my team to perform?” to “How can I get my team to WANT to perform.”