5 Myths of Accountability

By Mark Samuel –

Accountability requires everyone to take ownership for results

The myths of accountability are deeply ingrained in our business paradigms. Accountability is one of the most misunderstood terms in organizational development and a concept that I have studied and taught for the 35 years I’ve been consulting with organizations. When people hear the word “accountability,” they often think of being the only one responsible for a project or of letting down the team and being punished for it. And for many, this is how accountability plays out in their organization. But this is a huge misinterpretation and misuse of the concept, and one that is not only unhelpful but also damaging to both organizations and their employees.

True accountability is not only a nice thing to have within an organization; it’s essential. But it’s important to know who you’re accountable to and what you’re accountable for. Below are five myths about accountability and the truths that should replace them.

Myth No. 1: Accountability is an individual “sport.”

The Truth: Accountability is a team “sport” where success depends on team execution, support and transparent communication.

When it comes to organizations, success involves multiple teams, functional and cross-functional, serving customers in the most fluid, streamlined and effective manner possible. While individuals do have their own responsibilities and must carry their own weight, there are many responsibilities that intersect between different individuals. Individuals on a team have the added responsibility of picking up the undefined responsibilities that are required to achieve desired outcomes. Individuals must be accountable for their individual roles and the ultimate results of the team to ensure internal and external customers are well served.

Myth No. 2: Accountability is about keeping promises and completing the tasks you’ve agreed to.

The Truth: Accountability is about accomplishing the deliverables and outcomes that the team has agreed to.

The belief that individuals and teams are accountable for completing tasks, doing what they said they were going to do and keeping commitments is a short-sided view of accountability. What if your tasks and commitments aren’t achieving your desired outcomes or business results? Then you are only accountable for activity without a clear purpose. Many organizations are stuck in busyness that wastes time, energy and effort because the focus is on doing instead of outcomes. Also, when you delegate tasks, have you ever seen an individual put in the effort to complete the task, but it didn’t meet expectations? Yes! Why? Because, the commitment was for the effort of doing the task, not on achieving the outcome desired from doing the task.

Myth No. 3: Being held accountable means being punished when you don’t do what you’re supposed to do.

The Truth: Being held accountable means surfacing issues before they impact the outcomes you’re looking for.

Human error, as well as external, uncontrollable forces, will always have a role in accountable organizations — and that’s OK. A crucial part of accountability is forgiveness, as is flexibility when things don’t go as planned. The key is to be ahead of the game, surfacing issues the moment they arise and problem-solving together as a team so that the outcomes you’re reaching for are not negatively affected. Punishment and shame negatively impact an individual’s ability to perform their job and create an unsafe environment where issues are hidden instead of surfaced due to fear (of being held “accountable”). An accountable organization creates a safe environment for people to ask questions, raise concerns and surface obstacles, knowing that the team is responsible for creating innovative solutions for effectively reaching the deliverables and outcomes they’ve agreed to. 

Myth No. 4: Accountable leadership means having all of the answers.

The Truth: Accountable leadership means providing direction, guidance and mentoring to help individuals come up with their own answers.

When leaders think they have all the answers, they tend to make decisions in isolation and develop a dependency on their direct reports. This approach is actually a form of control, not accountability. It doesn’t teach critical thinking to others, a skill that is necessary if they are to understand the basis of decision-making or be able to ever think for themselves without asking permission. Ultimately, this results in a bottleneck, hampering the team’s ability to achieve desired outcomes and leaving the organization vulnerable and without future leaders who can be promoted. The accountable leader’s role is not only to achieve desired outcomes but to build their team members’ competency and critical thinking so they can ultimately rise in the organization to their highest potential.  

Myth No. 5: Making mistakes or not achieving the desired outcome means you aren’t being accountable.

The Truth: Top performing accountable team players expect to make mistakes and develop proactive recovery plans so they’re ready for when this happens.

How many times have you seen a top professional athlete or musician make a mistake in front of a live audience? Regularly! Tom Brady in football, Lebron James in basketball and Herbie Hancock in music have all made mistakes that cost the game or threw off other musicians in a concert.

Accountability is not perfection and to err is human. In fact, the more an organization confuses this concept, the less people take the necessary risks, and leaders don’t make decisive decisions that are necessary to achieve high performance. Instead of depending on perfection, professional sports teams and music groups rehearse how they will respond to breakdowns, broken plays and mishaps.

The truly accountable organization and teams practice what I call “proactive recovery plans” instead of depending on perfect plans, perfect decisions or perfect human performance. This is done by anticipating the most likely potential breakdowns and creating cross-functional plans to get back on track as soon as possible. This could be a contingency plan, or a plan B, but it can also just be a process for convening the necessary people to solve the challenge and make a decision in the fastest way possible. Proactive recovery plans have been known to reduce time spent on projects and produce faster desired outcomes for clients and customers.

Incorporating these elements of accountability will help organizations — and the people who work for them — to thrive.

To learn more about accountability, check out my books:

This article was first published as a Forbes Coaches Council Post