Accountability: Keeping the “Count On” in Relationships

Accountability is both the sweet spot and Achilles heel of many leaders. Leaders learn early the importance of “holding associates accountable” for results. Despite its downbeat reputation accountability, effectively executed, remains the keystone for trust between leaders and associates, and associates with their customers.

Accountability is both the sweet spot and Achilles heel of many leaders.

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Trust is the glue that binds all relationships. Without a climate of trust, organizations can’t deliver the type of service that fuels customer loyalty. Customers who trust are more apt to offer candid guidance for improvement, not just the proverbial “fine!” Customers who trust are more tolerant of mistakes and more responsive to service recovery. Compare United with JetBlue. Customers who trust are advocates, not just satisfied. And, customer trust is created and sustained by an accountability culture.

How can accountability assist leaders in developing a culture where trust is an ever-present component? Let me turn back the clock to my teenage years to illustrate how accountability can build trust and produce desired results while making the leader’s job far less contentious.

My dad, Ray Bell, was painfully shy and conflict averse. At sixteen, I was completely the opposite. He hated conflict; I enjoyed a heated confrontation. And, calm conversations about my chores quickly escalated into chaotic confrontations complete with slamming doors when I failed to get the most treasured reward — the family car on Saturday night. Our fights over my nonperformance on assigned chores were quickly eroding any semblance of a father-son relationship.

Then, the conflict completely stopped.

My dad realized he needed a new accountability approach. He decided to stop being detention officer and let my performance decide the consequence of my work. Each week chores were discussed and expectations clarified along with the clear consequences for good, poor and non-performance. Dad supplied helpful resources and then followed with the most important part — he kept his promise to deliver on the consequences.

If I did all my chores in sync with agreed upon expectations, I got the family car to go to the movies on the weekend. If I did not, my performance communicated that I was choosing to stay home on Saturday night. No more uproar. Just clear expectations, fair consequences, helpful support and assurance that consequences promised were consequences delivered. And, the trust between Ray Bell and this rebellious teen blossomed.

Like the “before” Ray Bell, leaders dread the performance appraisal aspect of accountability because it too often turns into hurt feelings, uncomfortable conflict, and smoldering hostility. Following the example of the “after” Ray Bell provides a method for leaders to help associates put discipline into their own performance. This accountability path has four parts: clear expectations for outcomes, frequent “check in” conversations to stay on track, candid feedback for growth and fair consequences for great, poor and non-performances.

Set Clear Accountability Expectations

Great leaders know they only get the best from associates if they expect the best. They also know that creating “buy-in” is vital to delivering the expected results. Associates who participate in the development of expectations have much stronger commitment to achieving those expectations. While there are obviously times expectations must be determined by leaders, involvement should be the rule and not the exception.

Great leaders know they only get the best from associates if they expect the best.

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Involvement includes conversations to gain agreement on the achievability of performance outcomes. If associates have concerns about the reasonableness of expectations these should be discussed to gain agreement on how results can be better achieved. Expectations that remain “unreasonable” in the eyes of associates feed stress and breed a loss of commitment. Likewise, expectation-setting requires communication of both the rationale and importance of expected outcomes, leaving the “how” for the associate to discern.

Frequent “Check-in” Conversations

Great leaders know feedback is crucial to assisting associates in delivering successful outcomes. They also know it is the frequency of feedback that makes or breaks effectiveness. Imagine bowling blindfolded except for the very last frame. Make performance discussions a regular habit, not an annual errand. If feedback conversations occur at least monthly they become more comfortable for both leader and associate.

Great leaders know feedback is crucial to assisting associates in delivering successful outcomes.

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One approach that can be a boon to associates in achieving their expected outcomes is “future-stating.” Future-stating is a conversation in which leaders graphically state what future success will look like. Starting with the desired destination, work backward, agreeing on the actions needed to achieve that future state. Then, develop regular touch points and “check in” conversations to examine the path traveled to date (versus plan) and settle on course corrections to ensure arrival at the future state. Think of these “check-in” conversations as a GPS guiding performance to a new destination.

Candid Feedback for Growth

How do leaders give feedback that stimulates growth and energizes excellence? Below are four steps guaranteed to improve the chances of associates gaining an understanding of what is needed to enhance their performance:

  • State the Rationale for Feedback. Help associates gain a clear understanding of why feedback is being given. Lace communications with language that communicates: “I care about your effectiveness.”

  • Create a Climate of Identification. Avoid “shoulds” and “oughts.” Let facts guide your feedback rather than opinion. Keep the tone that of a thoughtful partner, not a controlling parent.
  • Recommend a “Cancel-out” Action. Think of a future action that is the opposite of the current ineffective practice that, if taken, could cancel out the old behavior. Instead of focusing on what an employee should have done, help channel energy toward what can be done to be more effective.
  • Share Optimism and Communicate On-Going Support. Leader optimism about the likelihood of improvement can lend encouragement and support. Also, communicate willingness to being a resource to help the associate improve. Be a facilitator, not a shepherd.

Fair Consequences for Performance

One of the underpinnings of accountability is consistently applied consequences for great and/or poor performance. Associates trust leaders who are fair and consistent. Associates realize when results are less than expected there should be consequences. They also presume there will be good consequences for exceeding expectations. When either fails to be delivered, trust between associate and leader is weakened.

Accountability has two meanings: “an accounting” and “I can count on you.” So, let the partnership side of leadership blend the two meanings to yield a relationship of trust. Fast-forward from my teenage years to today. I am now a granddaddy to three gorgeous granddaughters. And, my wife tells me I seem to have forgotten everything I ever knew about accountability!



Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several national best-selling books including Take Their Breath Away, Managing Knock Your Socks off Service, Managers as Mentors, The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service, and Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service. His newest book is: Kaleidoscope: Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles.. Global Gurus ranked him both in 2014 and 2015 as the #1 keynote speaking in the world on customer service. His has appeared live on CNN, CNBC, Fox Business, ABC, Bloomberg TV, NPR and his work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Inc. Magazine, Money Magazine, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, CEO Magazine, Fast Company and Businessweek. He can be reached at

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