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Building a Culture of Accountability



caution-tripping-hazard-1444098-1279x1021Imagine a business where the right things consistently get done on time, most of the time (nobody’s perfect). Where people regularly follow up on what they say they’re going to do. Where everyone in the organization – from senior leadership to front-line employees – are expected to uphold commitments to each other and to customers because integrity is a core organizational value.

This is known as having a “culture of accountability.” It doesn’t happen by chance. It takes hard work to achieve. And accountability must be an enduring core value rather than a management fad of the month. Companies with this type of culture tend to be market leaders. Companies that don’t have to spend most of their time trying to catch up or worse, get caught in a scandal where one thing was said, and quite another was done.

If you don’t have a culture of accountability, or would like to improve on what you have, here’s how to do it.

Set Expectations

In order to hold people accountable for their performance on the job, they have to know what you expect of them. The quickest way to create a demoralized, disengaged workforce is to leave it to employees to figure out what they’re supposed to accomplish and then slam them at performance time for not doing what you wanted them to do. One of the prime reasons people choose to invest in a business analysis training course and any other type of business education, is to ensure that their employees know what is expected of them on the job. The best way to help your employees accomplish the tasks that you set out for them is to offer comprehensive training at every angle. People can only do their best when they understand both the role and the expectations of them while they’re in it. The very first step here is to ask your employees which training would help them to be better in their job, and then offer them that training. It’s much easier to build that accountable culture when everyone is on board and working as a team. The worst thing that you can do is send in a team of people without the right tools to do the job; training should come first every single time.

The first step in creating a culture of accountability is to clearly define expectations – not the tasks, the outcomes – for individuals, teams and the organization as a whole. The key is to define the outcomes in a way that leaves as little room as possible for individual interpretation. For example, at the end of the year, the sales team will have acquired X number of new customers while increasing sales by Y percent and margin by Z%.

At the organizational level, define the desired outcome in terms of the company’s destination – where are you going and what will it look like when you get there? To enhance employee buy-in and understanding, go well beyond financial metrics. Include outcomes that will resonate with employees, such as improving customer satisfaction, speeding up delivery times, reducing scrap or developing a new product. Define your brand, your structure, core processes, tools, critical systems, etc. This supports getting your team focused on achieving the right outcomes so you can trigger the ‘prove yourself right’ tendency all adult humans have and engage employees in using their brains to ponder and explore the actions or tasks needed to reach the destination.

When assigning accountability (who will do what, by when, with what resources) at the individual level, always ask, “How does this get the organization closer to winning?” Make sure someone has clear ownership of every significant initiative or task, and assign the resources needed to get the job done.

When identifying the target, clarify the current state as well as the end state. Comparing the gap between the two will improve the accuracy of resource allocation and create a baseline for measuring progress towards the goals.

Once under way:

  • Provide regular performance feedback – quarterly at minimum, monthly or weekly preferably. Waiting until the end of the year to provide feedback does not support accountability of optimum performance.
  • Constantly communicate your definition of winning so people and teams never lose sight of it. Make it visual, make it transparent, and regularly post progress made toward the destination.
  • Measure results using qualitative and quantitative data, as this keeps people focused and engaged on what you want them thinking about. It also helps minimize the MSU (making stuff up) that goes on in any system.

Live the Values

Creating a culture of accountability involves more than holding people and teams accountable for their performance outcomes. It also involves holding them accountable for how they go about achieving them. This is especially true for senior leadership and management.

Are your leaders and managers aligned with and adhering to the company’s core values as they perform their jobs every day? In other words, are they living the values rather than paying them occasional lip service? As with performance outcomes, success in this area depends on clearly defining expectations.

Core values play a critical role in organizational culture, so start by deciding what kind of culture you want. Then clearly define it at the behavioral level – including what is considered acceptable and what isn’t. Again, be as specific as possible in order to minimize or eliminate others’ interpretations of what you want the culture to be.

These days, most companies do a reasonably good job of defining their core values. However, they tend to fall short in two areas: communicating them on a regular basis and holding people accountable for living them. To avoid having your values become just a plaque on the wall, I recommend conducting a “core values review” at least once a year.

During a senior leadership meeting, pause and ask:

  • Do we have clearly defined organizational values?
  • Do we communicate them on a regular basis?
  • Do employees understand them? How do we know?
  • Do our values support our vision of winning?
  • Do we, as senior management, role model the values and behaviors?
  • Do we hold ourselves and others accountable to living our values every day?

Keep in mind that values can change over time, and you may need to periodically update them. You may also need to redefine excellence to gain better alignment throughout the organization. Decide what is non-negotiable and what can be updated due to changes inside and outside your organization. Then adjust as necessary.

Once you’ve defined the culture you want, role model it by living the behaviors. For example, if you’re trying to build a culture of accountability, you may want to make personal (self) accountability a core value. In dysfunctional companies, leaders often try to shift the blame when they make mistakes. In accountable organizations, they acknowledge their mistakes, self-correct, and refocus on winning.

The quickest way to destroy a healthy culture is to tolerate behavior that continually violates the core values. When you see people acting contrary to your values, take swift action. If necessary, provide coaching to help them align their behavior with the values, but don’t tolerate continued violations. Otherwise, people will lose respect for you as a leader and the organization as a whole. You know you’re living the values when you become willing to fire someone who doesn’t align to them.

Keep in mind that a culture of accountability has to be intentional. If senior management doesn’t take the time to define the values that guide your organization – and then live them – people will operate off their own. That’s no way to build a winning business!


Holly is CEO of The Human Factor, Inc., and helps companies achieve excellence by creating clarity on what winning looks like and determining how to get there.

An experienced business leader, behavioral scientist, and keynote speaker, Holly has a rare combination of extensive academic training and in-the-trenches experience working in and leading organizations. She was previously President of The Ken Blanchard Company and a biotech start up.  Her clients include companies of every shape and size from Google to pest control to healthcare, as well as professional and nonprofit associations.

Holly is also a bestselling author. Her newest book, Using Your Brain to Win, was released to international acclaim.

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