How To Solve Accountability Problems at Work

As a manager, do you struggle with recurring performance problems? Are you trying to maintain quality with a growing team or grappling with organizational change? If so, your group may be suffering from a lowered sense of accountability.

Fortunately, you can turn that around. But first, it’s important to point out that accountability is never about blaming people for mistakes, punishing poor results, or micromanaging. Those tactics degrade employees’ autonomy and discourage open communication.

Accountability grows from mutual trust. It thrives when employees have a clear purpose, understand their roles, and know how they fit into the organization.

If you need to heal a team that’s slipped into distrust and confusion, it won’t happen overnight. But here are several practical strategies that get results.

Short, daily focus meetings

Most managers feel they communicate adequately, but most employees don’t believe they get enough information. As a manager, you have the responsibility for over-communicating and clarifying the mission for each day.

Leadership expert Roderic Yapp suggests having 15 minute stand-up meetings every morning to discuss exactly what the team is going to do today and why. The “why” is crucial. If your people don’t have a single, clear purpose, they’ll fail to follow through.

The right kind of help

Organizational expert Mark Graban points out that accountability can only thrive in an environment of trust and mutual problem solving. In other words, you have to strike a balance between letting your team solve problems on their own and providing the support they need to get there.

If you jump in and clear out every obstacle, people learn not to think for themselves. They know you don’t trust them to handle challenges, so they don’t.

But you don’t want to leave employees to fend entirely for themselves or they’ll get frustrated and give up. As a manager, you can share useful experience and advice to help them without dictating a specific course of action.

You have to work at finding this balance. And it’s harder in the short run to handle issues this way, but it pays off with a team that can flex and respond to unexpected problems quickly.

Clear responsibilities

Jay Papasan, co author of The One Thing, in an interview with Project Management, illustrates the importance of clear and detailed responsibilities:

“Specifics matter with accountability. I’ve seen this play out in the case of a car accident. I looked at a hundred people at staring at the scene of accident and nobody took action. Nothing happened to address the accident until a trained person – a firefighter – started to move. That person took accountability to help and that made all the difference.”

Although it may seem obvious to you, don’t assume everyone knows what they’re supposed to do and why. When employees understand how you expect them to operate in the group, they have a mandate to take responsibility for that role.

Don’t forget that roles shift for different projects. You may need to re-define job expectations often.

Proof of progress

In research published in the Harvard Business Review, employees were happiest on days when they made progress toward a goal. But if you think about it, we almost never finish a day by appreciating the progress we’ve made toward a long-term objective.

And as manager, you probably don’t end your day pointing out what others have accomplished either. But this can be one of the most powerful strategies for improving accountability.

Whether you’re asking people to develop good daily habits or work toward an annual target, such as improved sales revenue, daily appreciation how far they’ve come reminds your team that their efforts are meaningful and encourages them to carry on.

Good examples

As Cindy Allen-Stuckey, Founder & CEO of Making Performance Matter asserts, accountability starts with you. Lead with your example.

Follow through on your promises. Explain how your actions and decisions support the company objectives. And admit your mistakes. If you can’t take responsibility, who will?

There’s no one proven blueprint for solving accountability problems. Some of these ideas may work for you, some may not. But the effort will teach you a great deal about yourself and your team. And as long as you focus on communication and trust, you’ll see the results you’re looking for.


Carol Bleyle
Carol Bleyle
CAROL handles client services and marketing for Software, a training platform designed to promote experiential, on-the-job learning and development. She works to realize the vision of turning the 70% of informal learning we do at work into a powerful training and development tool. With an M.A. in Cognitive Linguistics from the University of California at Berkeley, Carol views skills development through the lens of cognitive science and psychology And over the past 23 years, whether in traditional classrooms or on-the-go mentoring in her own company, Carol has constantly searched for realistic ways to make learning more natural and engaging. As a writer, trainer, consultant, entrepreneur and public speaker, Carol helps business owners find practical solutions to employee performance. She and her husband reside in beautiful Loudoun County Virginia with three energetic dogs and two lazy horses.


  1. I remember when I asked at one client twenty years ago about who was accountable for a certain strategy. I was then given the name of a team. So I ask the director that told me this, “so the team is responsible, does that mean the manager is accountable?” I was told no. I was told all of them were accountable.

    I looked at the director right in the eye. “So this strategy has issues with meeting the business outcomes, hasn’t it? I hope you understand that the reason is because responsibility is not the same as accountability.”

    I received a stunned look. People better understand accountability now, but still mix it up with responsibility.