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May 26, 2023

Holding People Accountable is Ineffective Leadership

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Over the years I’ve heard many managers and leaders say that they think it’s their job to hold people accountable. When we survey organizations, team members often report that “we don’t hold people accountable” or “there’s no accountability in this organization.”

From our perspective, managers and organizations shouldn’t be holding people accountable.  

If you’re still holding people accountable you’ve got the wrong people and/or you’re an ineffective leader. 

What most people mean by “holding accountable” is that  (1) people don’t do what they’re supposed to do and (2) no one is paying attention and making them pay for their failures. “Holding accountable” is often rooted in a blame and “got ya” culture. 

We make a distinction between “holding accountable” and “taking responsibility.” Holding accountable is something someone else is doing to me or something I’m doing to someone else. Accountability is something that is assigned by someone to someone else to make them take account for past actions, for what they did or didn’t do. 

Taking responsibility is something I do for myself.

Responsibility is not something that can be assigned, it is something that has to be taken. Responsibility lives in the world of integrity and impeccable agreements. I am in integrity and living impeccably when:

  • I make clear agreements (who, will do what, by when)
  • I keep 90% of my agreements
  • I renegotiate agreements I’m not planning to keep
  • I clear up broken agreements. 

Cleaning up broken agreements is where taking responsibility comes into play. I get to take responsibility for not doing what I said I was going to do. No one needs to check up on me, watch over me, hold me accountable. Rather I keep track of my agreements; when I don’t keep them I proactively go to those involved and own that I didn’t keep my agreement.  I take responsibility. 

If you as a manager or leader are still holding people accountable you can take responsibility for not creating a culture of impeccable agreements and responsibility.

Don’t blame anyone else or yourself, just take responsibility. Then commit to creating relationships built on agreements, teach your team about this way of working together, get co-committed as a team and then live out this commitment. End accountability and begin taking responsibility.

In this new culture it won’t be your job as a manager to hold anyone accountable. Your teammates will take responsibility and come to you and their colleagues when they don’t keep their agreements. You’ll be able to spend your energy on things that are yours to do and not things others can be doing. You’ll move off of the drama triangle where you have been showing up on Villain (blaming) and Hero (taking more than your 100% responsibility,  over-functioning, and then resenting). You’ll shift to Coach and Challenger as your team works from Creator. 


By the way, for those of you who are parents, all that I have said holds true for parenting. Family drama diminishes greatly when you begin to parent from bilateral agreements and less from edicts, rules and demands. When you empower yourself and your kids to make clear agreements and take responsibility for the agreements they make the game changes. 

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