How to create a culture of accountability in your team

“I just want my team to take responsibility and be accountable. Why is that so much to ask?!”

This was an urgent plea from one of HALO’s clients.

This particular manager was exhausted; feeling beaten up and seemingly taking responsibility and ownership for every single thing happening (or not) across their team.

Getting under the skin of what was going on was crucial. Once we’d done that, we then developed a plan to improve specific things.

Several months later and the picture is already very different. Here are the things that have made the biggest difference in creating a culture of accountability for this team:

1. Set crystal clear expectations

What specifically do you need to happen, how and by when?

For example, rather than saying “I need the customer performance report by the end of the month”, state “Please email me a final draft of the Quarter 1 2017/18 customer service performance report by 4.30pm on Thursday 27 July“.

Part of this is about clarifying the positive and negative consequences of achieving this. For example, the person can leave early on the Friday if they get you a high-quality report on time (positive). If they don’t get it to you on time or to high-quality, then they won’t be able to attend a training course scheduled for the Monday after (negative). Some managers say they feel a bit mean doing this. That’s okay. But you can’t expect people to take ownership if they don’t know the rules of the game. Clearly stating consequences is a key part of that.

2. Check/test understanding

Communication is part what you say and part what the other person hears. So don’t assume that just because you’re clear on what you’ve said that the other person has understood it in the same way.

A useful thing to do can be to ask the other person to play back, in their own words, what they’ve understood you’ve asked for. Managers that do this have said it’s amazed them the difference this can make in people taking ownership.

3. Get specific, in writing

Do you write your team members’ objectives? Quite a few managers I work with seem to do this. You’re unlikely to get a culture of accountability if you’re taking ownership of writing objectives and goals down. Not only will it be in your words (and therefore, only really have meaning for you), you’re starting things off as they’ll go on – with the other person being allowed to abdicate ownership.

When goals are set, and projects allocated, get each individual team member to write these down in their own words. They should outline what specifically they are going to do/deliver, by when, with who, how and where.

4. Show progress in a visual way

No doubt you have performance data in various shapes and forms. It can be incredibly powerful to have something visual up in your team area.

For example, if you are a campaign or project focused team, then put up on a whiteboard or screen the top five (most important) projects for your team that month (or quarter). Use a RAG (red, amber, green) status to show how things are going – updating this weekly.

5. Make it okay for people to admit if they need help

Admitting things were a struggle was seen as a sign of weakness in the team mentioned at the beginning of this post. This meant that people kept their heads down and either (a) kept working on something in the wrong way or in the wrong direction; or (b) became paralysed and unable to move things forward and then not delivering anything at all.

Therefore, it’s fundamental that you, as the team leader, make it clear that it’s okay for people to admit if they’re struggling. This is about the tone you set in one-to-one meetings, team meetings and in the wider office.

This is also about not kicking the cr*p out of someone if they get something wrong. And especially not doing this in front of other team members. Unless, of course, you want to create a culture of fear, rather than accountability. Then, by all means, continue.*

*Please don’t.

6. Clarify what accountability means and lead the way

One thing you can do is jot down the behaviours you expect to see if someone were being accountable. Share this with your team.

Even better, why not brainstorm together what accountability means to all of you? (which is what we did with this particular team).

Use it as a checklist for your own accountability each day. Pin it up somewhere that everyone can see every day. After all, you can’t expect your team to step up and become more accountable if you’re not 100% sure that you are.


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