Accountability: A powerful & troublesome tool of leadership

Where accountability is present, people automatically take ownership of their actions.

BY MICHAEL F. BROOM, Ph.D., Organization Development Psychologist

An essential task of leaders is developing a culture in which people take responsibility for their actions and decisions. In such cultures, blaming and finger-pointing are rare. Misunderstandings, miscommunications and other missteps are quickly noticed and corrected. Successes are celebrated, and failures are for learning.

Where accountability is present, people automatically take ownership of their actions. People are aware that their actions and inactions impact their success and the success of their organization. They know that their actions and inactions will always have an impact, whether favorable or harmful.

But such cultures do not automatically happen. Missteps often trigger blaming rather than corrective action. Responsibility is often denied. Engagement and productivity correspondingly drop. Nothing unusual here.

But there is a lot a leader can do to develop such cultures. The first step is for leaders to own their responsibility for the cultures they lead. For better or for worse, people follow their leaders. Leaders who deny their responsibility create cultures of people who do not own their responsibility.

What makes accountability difficult

Accountability has a mixed reputation. On the one hand, owning responsibility for whatever has happened is seen as admirable. Being accountable, on the other hand, means that you are the one to blame when something goes wrong. Avoiding blame is an all too popular activity in many organizations.

Leaders may be reluctant to hold their followers accountable for various reasons, including:

Fear of conflict

Leaders may avoid holding followers accountable to prevent potential conflict or uncomfortable confrontations. They may worry that addressing performance issues or unkept agreements could lead to resentment, hostility, or damaged relationships.

Unfortunately, avoiding conflict often results in unresolved disagreements that persist and have detrimental, passive-aggressive effects.

Lack of confidence

Some leaders may doubt their own authority or ability to enforce consequences. They lack the confidence to hold others accountable. They may worry about being perceived as overbearing, hypocritical, or unfair. They fear that will undermine their credibility and respect.

Their lack of confidence mostly results in their being seen as wishy-washy and ineffectual. It also leads to the organizational syndrome of good workers being punished with more work and poor workers being rewarded with less work.

Desire to be liked

Being liked is very important to some leaders. Fear of being disliked and rejected can cause them not to hold followers accountable. The results here are the same as for leaders who lack confidence.

Misconceptions about accountability

Some leaders may view accountability as punitive rather than an opportunity for growth and development. This misunderstanding can cause leaders to be reluctant to hold followers accountable out of fear of upsetting their team or ruining the work atmosphere.

Leaders can overcome these difficulties as they gain a deeper understanding of accountability.

A deeper understanding of accountability

Accountability is most effective when positive consequences and rewards go to those who take responsibility and keep to their commitments. Leaders often overlook this side of accountability.

Leaders who use positive consequences, i.e., rewards, forestall the need to use the negative consequences that generate so much anxiety and give accountability its negative reputation.

In addition, leaders who want a sustainable level of high productivity from engaged followers will want to create a culture of accountability for the following reasons:

Accountability Builds Trust

Leaders who consistently follow through with positive consequences for keeping agreements demonstrate their commitment to fairness and transparency. They create a sense of security and loyalty within the team, enhancing overall performance

Conversely, and as mentioned, they will only rarely need to exact negative consequences for unkept agreements. This fosters trust within the team.

Enhances Communication

Accountability is a feedback process that lets people know if they are on track or off track, allowing for correction as needed. It promotes open and honest communication.

Followers who know there will be consequences (positive and negative) for their actions are more likely to express appreciation and concern. They seek clarification about directions and expectations, which minimizes misunderstandings. This transparency supports better collaboration and decision-making.

Supports growth and development

Holding followers accountable gives leaders opportunities to provide support and guidance. It enables followers to learn from their missteps and develop their skills.

Leaders who intentionally and deliberately hold themselves accountable will find it easier to hold their people responsible. Leaders who lead with positive consequences instead of negative ones will find accountability easier than those who lead with negative accountability.

Leaders who do both will foster a culture of trust, responsibility, and open communication, ultimately driving enhanced performance and overall success.

Michael F. Broom, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of the Center for Human Systems. He is an organization development psychologist with over 45 years of experience. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Organization Development Network. 


Ask for a Free one-hour consultation. You’ll be surprised at the difference one hour can make! Check him out on his website at, or email him at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

scroll to top