Holding Others Accountable

Holding Others Accountable

Video Overview

Tom Smith, Co-Founder, Bestselling Author of How Did That Happen? talks about holding others accountable and the challenges involved in getting it right. The Accountability Paradox is often at work in organizations and at odds with getting results.

Organizations today suffer from a crisis of accountability. It is the defining issue for individual and organizational performance of our time. To address the crisis, leaders and managers too often fall back on the power of their positions and the authority of their assignments, expecting accountability from others rather than engaging it. In fact, a recent Zogby poll shows that a majority of those surveyed feel that accountability is something negative that happens to them—usually when things go wrong; rather than something they utilize to ensure success.

A conference board survey revealed that over half the U.S. workforce does not feel engaged at all. The results of this survey reported job satisfaction at 45 percent, its lowest level since 1987. In addition, 64 percent of employees under age twenty-five expressed dissatisfaction with their jobs. Getting people engaged in their work so that they invest in and take personal ownership of the results you need to achieve is a fundamental management imperative.

When leaders and managers hold people accountable the wrong way, they experience what we call The Accountability Paradox. That is, the harder you try and hold someone accountable, the less accountable they become, resulting in negative accountability connections and poor results.


You form an Accountability Connection with everyone you hold accountable. That connection can be either positive or negative. Every accountability conversation you have with them perpetuates either that positive or negative connection. The nature of your connection impacts your ability to hold them accountable. Here are some clues for detecting a negative connection:

  • You visibly detect the other person’s frustration during your conversations.
  • You note that they tend to offer excuses even before you get into the subject.
  • You hear virtually no positive feedback about their working relationship with you.
  • You recognize that they talk freely when things are going well and clam up when things are going poorly.
  • You can tell they are avoiding you.
  • You wait in vain for a proactive report on their progress.
  • You find that your conversations with them usually focus on what’s not working.

If you detect three or more of these clues, then, no matter how positively someone may claim they feel about their connection with you, it more than likely hinders your ability to hold them accountable.

You hold people accountable to deliver on the expectations you have of them. We call all these people you depend upon to deliver results your Expectations Chain. As the animated diagram on the right shows, there are people both "Upline" and "Downline" from you that you depend upon, in some way, to help you deliver the results others expect from you. These include members of your team, your boss, cross-functional partners, vendors and suppliers. All of these people comprise the links in your Expectations Chain and define the path of accountability. Typically, people suffer from the tendency toward "Accountability by proximity." That is, we tend to hold the people who are most proximate to us, the most accountable. We do less well with those further out in the chain, even though they may be the most critical links.


An Accountability Current flows in every organization, and through every Expectations Chain. The current is the directional flow of accountability and identifies where the accountability originates and the direction it moves. That flow can be either top-down or bottom-up; that is, accountability may either flow from you or toward you. You know you have really harnessed the power of accountability when the current flows toward you. That means people in the Expectations Chain (which, for an organizational leader, includes the entire organization) take accountability for fulfilling Key Expectations and take action on their own initiative and with their own energy and effort, to report back, report in, raise issues, resolve problems, and, in general, make things happen.

In today’s environment, business moves so rapidly and information comes so quickly that you need an effective approach that propels the people throughout your Expectations Chain to become invested, proactive, resourceful, accurate, quick, and creative in helping you achieve the results you need to deliver.


You form an Accountability Connection® with everyone you hold accountable. That connection can be either positive or negative. Every Accountability Conversation® you have with them perpetuates either that positive or negative connection. The nature of your connection impacts your ability to hold them accountable. Here are some clues for detecting a negative connection:


The first of these axioms, the Accountability Fallacy, captures a common mistake people make when they assume that others fail to follow through because there is something wrong with them. This false assumption comes easily to most of us because we so clearly see the evidence that convicts the culprits of not caring enough or not working hard enough to get the job done the way we expect them to get it done. Basically, we assume people to be guilty until proven innocent. When leaders fall prey to the Accountability Fallacy, they not only assume that their people are flawed, but that they themselves can do little or nothing to change those flaws except punish people for having them. Real accountability always requires us to begin by looking at ourselves for anything that might be missing.


The second axiom, the Accountability Assumption, dictates that you should always begin with the assumption that, in any given circumstance, people are doing their very best to fulfill your expectations. This assumption, consistently applied, will start the whole journey toward holding others accountable on a positive and principled track. Whenever you begin by assuming the worst in others, you will most likely see their worst behavior (not to mention your own) emerge. The Accountability Assumption allows you to begin with the view that people want things to work just as much as you do and that they are doing all they can to make that happen. This approach not only brings out the best in you, but, with some rare exceptions, it accurately reflects the truth about the people with whom you work.


Under all of this lies the third and final axiom, the Accountability Truth, which provides a more effective way of looking at the problem when people fail to follow through and deliver on expectations. By “Truth,” we simply mean that when things go wrong, there is usually something wrong with what “I” am doing. When you embrace this principle, you take control of future outcomes and internalize the continual need to improve your effectiveness with respect to holding others accountable. Thinking and behaving this way produces better results. You become more proficient at getting things done through others. When you see yourself as part of the problem, you empower yourself to join the team that will do whatever it takes to solve it.

Accountability, done effectively, is a skill you can develop just like any other skill, and while it is not a difficult skill to acquire and hone, it does require a high degree of conscious effort. When you do it right, you’ll also find it the fastest way to improve morale. The Partners In Leadership Others Track Training Training helps you do just that—hold others accountable in a way that is positive and principled and that yields results.


“I believe that we will be able to utilize these tools to help us better achieve accountability in our organization.”

Bonnie L. Miller, Training Administrator, DE Department of Labor

“As a result of focus on the Principles and feedback sessions, we have seen projects running more smoothly, improved communication and we have actually beat milestone dates in some cases!”

Betsy McCallum, Managing Director, Bankers Training and Certification Center

“Partners In Leadership helped provide our company with the tools necessary to make significant changes in key areas within our organization. Through helping us create a greater awareness of the importance of accountability in the workplace, and through helping us improve our customer service practices, Partners In Leadership has made a difference where it matter most; our bottom line.”

Pam Jamieson, Director of Career Development Office, Department of the Navy, Navairs

“Your entire Partners In Leadership team should be congratulated for the tremendous efforts they put forth this past year in assisting us in “finding our way”. Nicely done.”

Douglas E. Strohmeier, President, Tyco Healthcare