behavior management Team building

Turning Accountability into Action: Practical Tips for Leaders

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines accountability as an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.

As leaders, we are often tasked with keeping our teams accountable and being accountable ourselves. The problem is that accountability is set as an expectation, but anyone in your organization will rarely show you how to hold your teams accountable.

Today, you don’t have to wonder anymore.

We’ll go over some common challenges leaders face, and explain a few ways you can enhance the accountability for yourself and your teams.

Let’s get started!

Why accountability?

If I were to further break down the definition of accountability, I would argue that our willingness to “accept responsibility” is further driven by our desire to belong.

Society works based on trust. We’ve learned that we can count on people to do what they say they’ll do, and when they don’t, we reduce our trust in them.

So accountability is about trust. It is our desire to know that I can trust you to do as you said you would.

Who are we accountable to?

Since we established that accountability is ultimately about trust when we are asked to hold our teams accountable, who are we expecting to trust?

I pondered about this for a while and ultimately understood that in business, we are always accountable to our customers. But we get there by being accountable to our peers.

When we talk about holding our teams accountable, we are, in essence, placing our trust in two critical directions: horizontally, toward our peers and colleagues, and vertically, toward our customers and stakeholders.

Trust in Our Peers and Colleagues (Horizontal Trust): Accountability within a team relies heavily on mutual trust among team members. As leaders, we expect our team members to trust us to provide guidance, resources, and support to help them achieve their goals. Simultaneously, we must trust our team members to fulfill their roles, meet their commitments, and contribute to the collective success of the team. This horizontal trust forms the bedrock of a cohesive and high-performing team.

Trust in Our Customers and Stakeholders (Vertical Trust): Ultimately, the success of any business hinges on the trust of its customers and stakeholders. We are accountable to them for delivering quality products, services, and experiences. To earn their trust, we must first demonstrate accountability within our teams. When our peers and colleagues trust us, this trust cascades vertically to our customers. They see a well-coordinated and accountable team dedicated to delivering value and meeting their needs.

Common challenges to helping your team be accountable

Celine Teoh, CEO Coach at Mochary Method, breaks down common challenges to accountability in their “How to Hold People Accountable” presentation. Let’s go over them in detail:

Ex-boss syndrome

Bad bosses are everywhere! luckily, since you are here, you care and are not one of those micromanagers that made you and your teammate’s life impossible. Don’t let a bad experience ruin the opportunity to build trust within your team to help them with accountability.

I am not an expert

How do you question someone more experienced than you? As leaders, likely, you are not the expert in the room, however, you are still accountable to your team and your customers.


You understand your team and feel deeply for the challenges they face. How can you expect accountability when their reasons are so valid?

I trust the team

You believe in your team and trust them so much you don’t feel the need to check on them.

Conflict avoidance

What if they get angry? what if my best employees leave? I am hesitant to hold them accountable out of fear of what they might do.

While these and other scenarios might seem valid to you, understand that to win over your customer and your peer’s trust, we have to overcome our fears and learn of ways to cultivate a culture of accountability.

Fostering an accountability culture

Carrots and Sticks

The prevalent way businesses have been fostering accountability has been by using carrots and sticks. If you are not familiar with the term, carrots, and sticks refer to when leaders use gifts (the carrot) as well as punishment (the stick) to incentivize behavior.

The basics of carrots and sticks look something like this

  • Set a goal and provide a bonus if you hit the goal (use a carrot)
  • No bonus if the goal is not met (remove the carrot)
  • We place you on a PIP and fire you if you don’t meet the goal (use a stick)
  • Meet your PIP goals and we won’t fire you (remove the stick)

Research has shown that carrots and sticks are well suited for tasks where the steps are well known. But well-known tasks are also tasks that are prone to automation, so we are left with a workforce whose value is created by being creative and solving challenging problems.

Unfortunately, carrots and sticks are detrimental when used to incentivize creative work. So how do we then get our teams, working on creative tasks, to be accountable for their work?

Intrinsic motivation

Rather than doing something to seek a reward or avoid a punishment, intrinsic motivation plays to our desire to do something simply because we find it interesting.

A great example provided by Dan Pink is the contrast between Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia and Wikipedia.

For Encarta, Microsoft went about implementing all the known carrot-and-stick approaches. Highly capable managers, a well-laid-out bonus structure, and very explicit goals.

On the other hand, Wikipedia is free to use and its content is entirely made from excited and engaged individuals who care for the information Wikipedia contains.

You don’t have to guess which encyclopedia is successful now. The intrinsic motivators driving Wikipedia contributions far outpaced any bonus structure put in place for Encarta.

How then do we foster intrinsic motivation to create a culture of accountability? Recent authors have given us excellent information on how to foster intrinsic motivation, here are some recent examples that I’ll use to illustrate actionable steps

These authors argue that when we care about something, we do a much better job at it, and to foster a culture of caring, we must help our teams understand the value they are adding and give them ownership over their work.

Let’s now take a look at specific action steps we can take as leaders to foster a culture of accountability by ensuring our team cares about their work.

Practical tips for leaders

A mental model I use to simplify what we’ve reviewed so far is that

“we foster accountability in our teams by providing autonomy via mastery and purpose”

This oversimplification covers most of the general idea, but let’s dig into the specifics of how we could implement it.


Your team works best when they feel ownership of their work, We allow for ownership by fostering autonomy, Here is how:

  • Define the mission and objectives clearly – follow up on progress on a pre-determined scheduled
  • Set high standards and clearly define what excellence looks like – repeat these often
  • Reaffirm your trust in your team. “I understand this work is challenging, and I want you to know that I believe in you and I have high expectations from your work.”
  • Allow decisions to happen where the information resides
  • Allow your team to choose their projects
  • Focus on outcomes rather than micromanaging the process
  • Let individuals define their own goals and metrics for success
  • Enable flexible work arrangements
  • Allow for open communication and active listening
  • Encourage your team to propose solutions
  • Foster “I intend to” statements by asking your team to bring up what they intend to do (new decision, next steps) rather than expecting you to tell them what to do next. On your end, focus on asking about the impact rather than focusing on the steps.
  • Don’t allow for excuses, autonomy = ownership. When given an excuse ask – what could we have done differently? what do you intend on doing next?
  • Lead by example by taking full responsibility for the successes and failures of your team. Never blame others or external factors for setbacks


It is extremely difficult for your team to achieve their tasks autonomously if they don’t have the knowledge and expertise required to complete them.

To have Autonomy, we require mastery, and mastery is achieved with grit (talent + effort). Here are a few ways to help your team achieve mastery:

  • Offer continuous learning opportunities
  • Allow your team to tackle challenging projects, stretching their current knowledge
  • Setup a mentorship program
  • Encourage your team to attend conferences
  • Encourage cross-functional collaboration, so your team learns from others and builds empathy toward sister groups
  • Solicit and Provide constructive feedback so your team knows where to improve
  • Frame mistakes or setbacks as opportunities for growth by holding retrospective meetings after projects to identify what went well and what could be improved, fostering a culture of continuous learning
  • Organize “learning days” where team members can dedicate time to exploring new technologies, tools, or methodologies.
  • Set up a “learning board” where team members can post and discuss lessons learned from various projects, promoting shared learning
  • Start a book club on a subject related to an upcoming project
  • Foster a culture of open communication and active listening, allowing team members to freely exchange ideas and insights
  • Facilitate regular peer reviews, where team members provide feedback and suggestions on each other’s work
  • Implement a feedback loop that allows the team to make data-driven adjustments.


To fully achieve Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, it is important to focus on the underlying reason for the work we do.

When we have a clear understanding of our purpose, we can take ownership of our work and feel empowered to achieve our goals independently, utilizing the skills and knowledge we have gained. To help your teams find purpose, follow these steps:

  • Communicate the team’s overarching mission and how each member’s work contributes to that larger purpose
  • Regularly remind team members of their work’s meaningful impact on the organization, customers, or society as a whole
  • Initiate discussions about the values and principles that guide the team’s work, helping individuals connect their tasks to a sense of purpose.
  • Involve team members in setting meaningful goals that align with the team’s mission and values, creating a sense of ownership
  • Encourage collaboration and teamwork by emphasizing the importance of mutual support within the team. Each team member should cover for and support their colleagues
  • Foster a culture where individuals are willing to step out of their comfort zones to help others in need, even if it means temporarily shifting focus from their tasks
  • Promote a “we before me” mentality, where the collective success of the team is always prioritized over individual achievements or agendas
  • Encourage team members to ask questions and seek clarification when they are unsure about the intent or the rationale behind a task. Promote a culture of curiosity
  • Help your team prioritize tasks and objectives based on their importance and impact on the overall mission. Focus on the most critical goals first
  • When facing a crisis or rapidly changing situation, remain calm and composed. Encourage your team to do the same and stick to the plan while making necessary adjustments
management Team building

Check your team’s pulse

Imagine yourself as the sparkling new manager of a team, like any good manager, you listen attentively, trying to learn anything and everything there is to know about your team.

You set up one on one meetings, embed yourself in your team’s processes, and get to know all stakeholders personally.

All great initial steps for your first 90 days, but is that enough? can we determine if there is trust within your team? do you know if they have all the tools they need? can you figure this out consistently? Can you devise a team-building strategy?

Next, I’ll introduce a consistent, simple, and proven technique to get a good hold of your team’s pulse, allowing you to plan accordingly to meet your team’s needs and expectations.

Introducing – the survey

Surveys have been around for a while, and they tend to stick around because they are excellent tools to gather information consistently, allowing for anonymity when desired, and being useful to visualize changes over time by running the same survey at given time intervals.

The surveys I am about to present came from different sources.

I used books such as

As well as my own experiences in various managerial roles.

I aimed to get a pulse at the company level, drilling down to the team level, and lastly to the individual, which resulted in 3 different surveys being created.

Workplace survey

The first survey covers the state of the workplace.

12 questions should be studied in blocks of 3 questions at a time.

Each 3 question block is meant to build on the following 3 questions, in other words, if we find that we are doing bad on any 3 question block, the earliest block is the one we need to concentrate our efforts before we try to fix any of the subsequent blocks.

Think of each set of 3 questions as a step in a pyramid, with the first step being the base for everything else.

Company basics

The first set of questions will surface if your team knows what they are supposed to do, have been given the materials they need, and if they are working on what they enjoy.

All statements receive a rank from 1 to 5, where 5 denotes strong agreement with the statement

  • I know what is expected of me at work
  • I have the materials and equipment to do my work right
  • At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day

Care for the individual

We now move from the basics to the individual. We want to know if we are caring enough that it is noticeable. People don’t stay at jobs where they don’t feel appreciated.

  • In the last 7 days, I have received recognition or praise for a job well done
  • My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person
  • There is someone at work who encourages my development


While the prior questions focused on a top-down view of the individual, this set of questions try to get the story of how the individual perceives their contributions are being received, as well their alignment with the company’s mission.

  • At work, my opinions seem to count
  • The mission and purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important
  • My associates are committed to doing quality work

Personal growth

The last set of questions is about growing as a person. Understanding that maturing with us is a winning proposition for everyone.

  • I have a best friend at work
  • In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress
  • This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow

Team survey

Our team survey is mostly based on the 5 dysfunctions of a team, and similar to the workplace survey, we group the questions in such a way that we can get answers to very specific needs.

We are ranking statements from 1 to 5 as well, with 5 determining strong agreement.

Absence of trust

Trust leads to excellent teamwork, open communication, and probably more important, actually looking forward to working with your team.

The statements to surface absence of trust are as follows

  • Team members quickly apologize when they do something damaging to the team
  • Team members openly admit their weakness and mistakes
  • Team members know about one another personal lives and are comfortable discussing them

Fear of conflict

This section is all about ensuring that we don’t ignore controversial topics, that all opinions and perspectives are heard, and that no time is wasted in interpersonal risk management (appearing to be something we are not)

  • Team members are passionate and unguarded in their discussion of issues
  • Team meetings are compelling and not boring
  • During team meetings, the most important, and difficult, issues are put on the table and resolved

Lack of commitment

Not suffering from lack of commitment means that we have clarity around the direction and priorities for the team.

As well as being aligned around a common objective and having the ability to change direction without hesitation or guilt.

  • Team members know what their peers are working on and how they contribute to the collective of the team
  • Team members leave meetings confident that their peers are completely committed to the decision that was agreed on, even if there was initial disagreement
  • Team members end discussions with clear and specific resolutions and calls to action

Avoidance of accountability

Accountability aims to improve performance. Peer pressure, while not politically correct, maintains a high standard of performance for any team.

If your team suffers from avoidance of accountability, some proven techniques include increasing pair programming efforts, surfacing goals and standards, and constantly reviewing your progress against them.

  • Team members call out one another deficiencies or unproductive behaviors
  • Team members are deeply concerned about the prospect of letting down their peers
  • Team members challenge one another about their plans and approaches

Inattention to results

When we care about something other than the collective goals of the group, it becomes very difficult to show meaningful results.

We must be careful about what a celebration looks like, think about the reasons for Wikipedia to be so successful. It has nothing to do with money or status, and everything to do with buy-in and passion for knowledge.

With that said, if your team suffers from inattention to results, some proven techniques include committing publicly to specific results and celebrating your achievements.

  • Team members willingly make sacrifices (such as taking on support) for the good of the team
  • Morale is significantly affected by the failure to achieve team goals
  • Team members are slow to seek credit for their contributions but quick to point out those of others

Individual autonomy survey

The individual survey is all about autonomy.

Using Carrots and sticks to influence behavior has been very effective to get performance gains on work that already has a predetermined solution.

Think of work that you could put in a to-do list, and requires mostly effort, and not thinking, to complete it.

In other words, when the solution is known and we just have to implement it, carrots and sticks work extremely well.

Carrots and sticks, however, has been proven to decrease performance on any type of work that requires any amount of thinking and creativity

A good presentation on the subject can be watched here

How do you achieve performance, results, and keep people happy if rewards and punishment are ineffective?

You allow for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

The prior surveys already touched on mastery and purpose, so I am concentrating on knowing how much autonomy the team has to perform their work.

  • How much autonomy do you have over your tasks
  • How much autonomy do you have over your time
  • How much autonomy do you have over who you work with
  • How much autonomy do you have over your technique

To close up on autonomy, an easy way to think about it is

do not micromanage and lead with questions.

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