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Accountability: How to Make It Meaningful


Thu Aug 05 2021

Accountability: How to Make It Meaningful

Simply stated, accountability indicates who is responsible. It means the thorough and effective completion of a deliverable or task and cannot exist without clarity of goals and their alignment internally as part of a coordinated planning process.

CEOs frequently mention the lack of accountability within their organizations. They have reason to be concerned; without it, performance, productivity, and brand equity are diminished.


Accountability starts at the top, beginning with the CEO holding senior executives accountable. It extends through various organizational levels with the recognized importance of direct report to a manager. In parallel, accountability includes managers to direct reports and extends to accountability within teams. At a broader level, the organization has accountability to its stakeholders including owners, stockholders, and the community.

Mutual Agreement Between a Direct Report and Their Manager

Accountability between a direct report and their manager is at the core of the performance management process. It must begin with mutual agreement on goals and expectations. The direct report has accountability for achieving these goals and the action plans or criteria that answers what it means and how goals are to be achieved_._ Quantitative goals have metrics with specific targets and require action plans. Qualitative goals are subjective and need action plans or criteria for meaningful evaluation.

Accountability requires regular meetings and reporting on how action plans have been executed in terms of their effectiveness, meeting timelines, use of resources, and related spending. The focus should be on progress or problems and any changes required to adapt to new circumstances in a VUCA environment. Effective execution of action plans means the goals will be achieved.

Managers Drive Accountability

Managers are accountable for their direct reports’ performances, both individually and as a team. This includes ensuring regular meetings with direct reports. In addition, the manager is accountable for:

  • Demonstrating the values of the organization, expecting team members to follow

  • Leading teams to be motivated and engaged, contributing to their increased productivity and performance

  • Driving the professional development and growth of team members

Regular meetings with direct reports are the time for feedback and coaching, with the manager providing guidance, direction, technical support, facilitation, and positive recognition. It’s also a time for constructive feedback on performance and competencies. All of this reinforces accountability.


Cascading Accountability Within Teams

Team members working efficiently and effectively to deliver on team accountabilities is of critical importance. The team leader sets the tone and creates the climate for psychological safety. Patrick Lencioni’s team functionality model sums up the mutual accountabilities of teams, starting with trust and moving to healthy conflict, built on a foundation of psychological safety. Consensus, commitment, and mutual accountability follow. The result is high performance. Team members can challenge and respect each other’s opinions and benefit from their support, assistance, delivery on commitments, and positive workplace relationships.

The CEOs Critical Role

While the focus too often appears to be about company performance—revenue, profitability, and ROI— accountability is also about culture, company values, and the welfare of employees and their engagement. For the CEO, that means supporting the organization, delivering on commitments in terms of goals and related action plans, sound decision making that leads to growth and profitability, and overseeing the effective management of functions, departments, teams, and individuals. It also means accountability for leadership working effectively as a team.

The Organization’s Accountability to Its Stakeholders

For many companies, the simple notion of accountability is ROI and growth in profitability and equity. This has evolved to the broader role of ESG: environmental, social, and corporate governance responsibilities. Increasingly, companies have become accountable for the impact they have locally, domestically, and globally depending on scope of operations. This is accountability in its broadest context, with more and more companies taking it seriously out of concern for the planet, for communities, and the interests of stockholders. It calls for major philosophical changes in the approach to conducting business and the need for transparency in keeping stockholders and other stakeholders informed.

This is all about sound management practices. However, managers need facts to make accountability work, and this requires infrastructure built upon:

  • Clarity of goals

  • Comprehensive financial reporting with clearly identified profit and cost centers

  • An effective information system with well-developed analytics and metrics

In a meaningful “accountability environment,” with clarity and alignment of goals, leaders and managers will respond to their direct reports with a developmental approach. This will include the need for coaching and training at all levels and other forms of professional development. For the organization, this will translate into sustainable engagement, performance, productivity, and success.


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