Accountability: Not all it is Cracked up to Be

We talk a lot about accountability in business.  We like it.  It makes us feel confident and in control.

So is accountability all it is cracked up to be?

Accountability is good:

  • It provides clarity
  • It gives authority
  • It holds us true

Holding ourselves accountable is invariably a good thing.

It is wrong and immoral to seek to escape the consequences of one’s acts ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Accountability is bad:

  • It enables scapegoating
  • It creates fear
  • It results in blame

Holding other people accountable is a far more slippery slope.

The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions ~ Dwight D. Eisenhower

It is a fine line to tread:

Should you hold those around you accountable for their performance or work with them to deliver the results you want?

Hold everybody accountable? Ridiculous! ~ W. Edwards Deming

The Google test:

Try typing “accountability quotes” into your search engine and count the number of results that come from politicians.

Even if I have to stand alone, I will not be afraid to stand alone. I’m going to fight for you. I’m going to fight for what’s right. I’m going to fight to hold people accountable ~ Barbara Boxer (U.S. Senator)

Oddly they are far keener on holding others accountable than themselves.  Maybe I am just a cynic.

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  1. James Lawther says:

    Small addendum

    If you remain unconvinced read this post on aircraft maintenance

  2. James, great piece and touches on something that has been bugging me for a while. is accountability the get out of responsibility clause for managers?

    I hear managers talk about “getting some accountability round here”, “put the pressure on him, we’ll make sure he’s accountable”, etc. Language full of testosterone. My impression is that the application of this type of accountability is essentially the imposition of fear dressed up as good management practice. I rarely hear people say, “XX is accountable and we’ll work with him to improve how the process works or widen his knowledge, etc”.

    If accountability adds up to finger pointing and repeating statements like “those figures aren’t good enough, they’ve got to be better next month”, then management has failed. Sadly the cynic in me fears the manager will defend their position by saying “I held XX accountable, that’s my job”.

    Keep up the good work. We should talk some time.

    • James Lawther says:


      I was once told that if you hold peoples feet to the fire all you get is a lot of burnt feet.

      Love to chat, drop me some dates.


  3. Great piece here! You put into words what I have been feeling for quite some time. I have worked with some concrete-head managers who think “everything is about accountability”! All I hear when they say “hold them accountable” is “I dont know how, or I dont want to actually fix anything. I just want to blame someone and when they fail I will replace them with someone else who is MORE accountable”

    Its sad how often we practice this in the workplace today. So, the question is, as change agents how can we begin to show folks that there is another, better way?

    • James Lawther says:

      Couldn’t put it better Dave.

      I can even feel a post coming on about “concrete-headed management”

      Thanks for your comment

  4. Thanks, James… you always write thought-provoking pieces.

    My question is: if we are not held accountable for our own words and actions, who is responsible for them?

    Does common sense come into play here?

    Is there some reasonableness test that should be applied? You are held accountable for things as long as you were given a framework within which expectations were set for your actions or responses.

    OK, that was more than one question.


    • James Lawther says:

      I think the issue is what happens when things go wrong.

      Should I be held accountable and punished if I commit a crime? Yes, it it was all my doing. Where there any mitigating factors? Should my punishment vary depending on circumstances?

      Should I be held accountable and punished if I miss my sales numbers because a competitor has launched a whiz bang new product? Clearly the organisation should do something about it, launch another product, change our distribution approach, re price. But if I am a lowly sales man I can’t do those things, yet if I still get my bonus slashed is it any wonder that I cheat my numbers?

      So I guess it is all about outcomes.

      Thanks for your comment


  5. Hi James,
    Your point about politicians (as wells as others) is well made. Lots of talk about accountability, no results, no consequences….vacuous and pointless.

    Wonder how we’ll get people to stop using it as a big stick?


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