Creating a Culture of Accountability

Can you remember the first time you were held “to account”? It was probably a negative experience and most likely involved getting a big fat red C on a test at school. Almost every time we use the word accountability, it's because something has gone wrong. So, no wonder we have a negative visceral reaction when we hear it! 

Yet the paradox is that, as leaders, we are told we need to hold people accountable. But let’s just pause for a moment and think about the assumptions that underlie this: 

  1. Workers are not capable of achieving outcomes on their own
  2. Workers are likely to do a bad job
  3. Workers are not self-motivated 

These assumptions are a legacy of the industrial era when managerialism was rife. But the nature of work has evolved since these days and leadership is more about motivating and understanding our people than cajoling them.  

Yet accountability remains challenging to master.

Take societal culture. In high ’power distance’ cultures, there is a greater acceptance of unequal distribution of power and authority. Employees tend to follow formal rules and show deference to higher-ranking positions. Conversely, in cultures like Australia, where egalitarianism is valued, people prefer a smaller power distance. This makes traditional, top-down accountability uncomfortable and often resisted. 

Moreover, every organisation has its own unwritten rules and norms. In some companies, performance and accountability are regularly discussed and expected, while in others, mediocrity might be tolerated, and there are no significant consequences for poor performance. The latter creates an environment where accountability is difficult to enforce. 

Holding someone to account using the Accountability TriangleTM

Accountability Triangle-1

Here is a technique that offers three different ways to approach a conversation about accountability. If you can find the right angle for the conversation, you might avoid triggering a negative reaction when you use the word ‘accountability’. We call it the Accountability Triangle.  



First, assess whether the individual had the means to complete the task. This includes the skills, experience, and resources to do the task well. If any of these were lacking, it’s the leader’s responsibility to address the gaps. So often we jump to conclusions about why someone didn’t do a good job when the reality is they have never done it before and so found it difficult the first time.  Another common mistake by leaders is to assume that just because their employee is experienced, they will be good at the task at hand. It might be that despite their general experience, they have never done this particular task before.


We all have tasks that we just don’t want to do. If we don’t like a particular task we won’t be motivated to do it. An individual’s lack of motivation can stem from a variety of factors, and as leaders, it’s important not to make assumptions. Engage in open conversations to understand the underlying reasons for their lack of enthusiasm. A simple statement like, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you aren’t motivated to do this task,” can open up a productive dialogue.


In today’s world, people seek meaning and purpose in their work. Research shows that having a sense of meaning increases job satisfaction and engagement by 74%. People may not do a task to your expected level because they don’t understand why this task is important and how it contributes to the greater objectives and strategies. Explaining why the task is important can increase the chance that they will do it well in the future. Better yet if you can co-create this meaning with them to foster a deeper connection to their work.

Creating a culture of accountability

Here are some strategies that leaders can use to create a culture of accountability:

  1. Create a culture of feedback: Encourage regular and constructive feedback. Normalise it within your organisation so that accountability is seen as a positive and continuous process.
  2. Develop clear metrics: Ensure performance metrics are clear, measurable, and communicated effectively. This provides a concrete basis for accountability.
  3. Foster a growth mindset: Promote a culture where learning and development are valued. Encourage your team to view challenges and feedback as opportunities for growth.
  4. Utilise data effectively: Collect and use data to inform your accountability conversations. This ensures that feedback is based on objective evidence and helps to build trust.
  5. Support and empower: Approach accountability from a place of support. Assume your team wants to do great work and help them remove any barriers they face.

As a start, use the Accountability Triangle to have open conversations with your team members about why things have or have not been done. Assume you don’t know and enter into the conversation from a place of curiosity to understand.  

Remember, your role is not just to hold people accountable but to help them to achieve their best. Once people are self-motivated and experiencing meaningful work, then accountability is the natural result.  

Video - How to hold someone accountable

For more on accountablity, here is a short video.







Dr. Edwin Trevor-Roberts
Dr. Edwin Trevor-Roberts

Edwin is the CEO of Trevor-Roberts and has spent the last 2 decades exploring how people find meaning through their work. He is also Chair of the Advisory board at the Centre for Work, Organisation, and Wellbeing at Griffith University.