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How leaders can inspire accountability

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Whether it’s customer complaints, patient safety issues, lack of talent attraction, or unwanted turnover, workplace issues can be overcome by increasing accountability, but not if the word if the word responsibility is synonymous with threat. Here are five ways leaders can inspire accountability so they support the team and dramatically improve results.

Reinventing responsibility

The word accountability has become synonymous with blame: being “held accountable”. Instead of equating liability with fault, think of liability as a measure with a witness. Measurement is the accountability tool that tells you if you are ahead, behind, too big, too small, enough or not enough, up to standard or not.

One tool is not enough to promote accountability. True accountability requires a witness – a human being other than yourself who is responsible for the results. Accountable leaders should not rely entirely on a document or checklist, but on confirmation of results.

The bottom line: Accountability is not a matter of blame. Accountability is about actions that are backed by a practical, light-hearted leadership approach. While many leaders fear being labeled as micromanagers, there is a significant gap between micromanaging and a light hands-on approach. Trust, but verify.

Reward initiative

Employee initiative is the sign of a responsible culture. Employees who take initiative anticipate, anticipate change, avoid problems before they become disasters. Employee initiative equals ownership. Employees who don’t take initiative are order takers. They do the minimum. They try not to make waves. They often protect themselves by hiding their mistakes.

The bottom line: Employees who take initiatives invest in their work and take ownership of it. They seek accountability feedback because they understand accountability is about improvement, not punishment. Initiative must be taught, expected and rewarded.

Increase resources

A lack of resources can be a barrier to performance, teamwork, productivity, customer service, talent attraction and retention. An example: a barista quit her job at a coffee shop because the manager wouldn’t rush to a rug to stand on. Another example: in a long-term care facility that I visited, residents often go without cold water.

At first glance, this may appear to be indifference, understaffing or poor supervision. The underlying problem: lack of resources. With only one cooler for three lanes, it’s a long walk to get ice. It’s easier to be busy elsewhere.

In a tough industry where understaffing is the norm, investing in a few extra coolers and a part-time volunteer to fill them could be the difference between retention, attraction, and an angry patient advocate filing a complaint with the state.

The bottom line: Give your employees the resources they need to do their jobs effectively. If you want to retain your employees and attract new talent, invest in the resources to make the job fun and easy.

Train frontline leaders

Frontline leadership issues are very basic. New leaders struggle with their identity when first promoted. They make ineffective decisions or feel that their decisions are not supported at the top.

Inexperienced leaders don’t know how to start difficult conversations. They don’t know how to self-regulate during conflict during conflict. They hide their challenges from senior leaders because they fear appearing incompetent. They do not make the connection between their role and the expected results.

The bottom line: Leadership development isn’t about leaving a group of junior supervisors in a conference room to watch a series of videos or attend a one-time workshop. Development includes an orientation period, as well as a process of skill development, coaching and accountability until the new leader has the confidence and skills to excel.

Balancing choice and responsibility

Where there is an accountability gap, there is an imbalance between choice and responsibility. There are either too many choices and not enough responsibilities, or too many responsibilities and not enough choices. Concretely, when a leader is given too many responsibilities but not the authority (the choice) to apply his decisions, the imbalance creates an unproductive conflict.

Many frontline leaders are disappointed when they discover their hands are tied when it comes to enforcing policy or properly giving performance feedback.

I’ve worked with government organizations that struggle with employee motivation and performance, and it’s easy to see why. No matter how well an employee performs, there is pressure to only give three out of five on the (annual) performance review because there is no budget for raises. Bad performers get a 2.5 so as not to ruffle the feathers of the union.

When the system is flawed due to an imbalance of choices and responsibilities, you get compliance, but not accountability.

The bottom line: Systems and processes that promote accountability need to work for leaders instead of leaders finding ways around the system. When a leader is responsible for results, the system must work for him and not against him.


Responsibility should not be a dirty word. Leaders at all levels can inspire accountability when accountability is rethought, initiative is rewarded, resources are augmented, leaders are properly developed, and systems of choice and accountability are balanced.

Marlene Chism is a consultant, executive trainer and author of “Stop the drama in the workplace(Wiley 2011), “Leadership without drama(Bibliomotion 2015) and the forthcoming book From conflict to courage (Berrett-Koehler 2022). She is a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform. Connect with Chism via LinkedIn or at

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