If You Are Holding People Accountable, Something Is Wrong (And it isn’t what you think.)

Susan Fowler Posted by Susan Fowler.

Susan Fowler is the author of Why Motivating People Doesn't Work...And What Does as well as several articles on the topic of motivation.

All together now, finish this sentence—a traditional belief so embedded in our collective psyche that I can hear your answers through the internet: We need to hold people ____....

bigstock-Talent-management-concept-in-w-42340138All together now, finish this sentence—a traditional belief so embedded in our collective psyche that I can hear your answers through the internet: We need to hold people ________.

Accountable.  Cue the boos and hisses.

Why Hold People Accountable?

When your focus is on how to hold people accountable, it takes your focus off an important question: “Why do we need to hold people accountable in the first place?”

If you believe people need to be held accountable, what is your underlying belief? Is it that people cannot be trusted to do what you want them to do? Is it that people fail to follow through on what they commit to doing? Why is that? Is it because they are lazy and irresponsible—or worse, intend to do harm? How did you come to believe people cannot be trusted?

Too often, leaders hold beliefs based on faulty assumptions, prejudice, or bad data. Have you had an experience that caused you to believe that, given the chance, most people cheat, lie, and steal? Do you have proof to substantiate your belief that people will miss deadlines, fail to achieve their goals, and slack off if you don’t keep your eye on them?

Strange—because the evidence is overwhelming that people want to contribute, are willing to work hard, and feel better when they achieve agreed-upon goals. W. Edwards  Deming, the father of the quality movement in the U.S. and Japan, believed that 80 percent of nonperformance was most likely due to system failures. Today we know that distributive injustice (unfair allocation of resources) and procedural injustice (unfair or secretive decision-making and processes) are two primary reasons organizations lack employee work passion. Perhaps leaders need to look in the mirror when their people are not performing. Too often, holding people accountable is a kneejerk reaction based on a leader’s own fear of failure. It is time to challenge why accountability permeates our language and mindshare in the workplace.

Never Beat a Carrot with a Stick

If you are now thinking, “I have proof that people will fail to perform if they are not held accountable,” it may still be the fault of leadership. Take this familiar scenario. You incentivize your sales people to sell. You give them a bonus for selling a lot. A particular sales person isn’t making his numbers. No surprise here—we know that incentives and bonuses are not healthy or reliable ways for people to experience optimal motivation. Carrots simply don’t work. (If you disagree with this statement, let me know and we will provide you with ample evidence in future blogs.)

Back to the scenario. You need to hold this failing salesman accountable. You consider writing him up, having “the talk,” applying pressure, chastising him, or harassing him with the success stories of his team members. The insidious thing about accountability is that it promotes the use of pressure to get people to do what they probably already want to do—succeed.

“The only traditional motivation technique more undermining than a carrot to activating optimal motivation is the stick.”


The problem is that leaders don’t understand the undermining and short-term effect of carrots (incentives, bonuses, tangible rewards), so when those bribes don’t work, leaders assume it is the individual’s fault and put accountability measures—the stick—in place.

Try this for the next month: Think deeply about the beliefs underlying the notion of holding people accountable. What is the real purpose of accountability and what data supports the need for it? How would your decisions, actions, and leadership be different if instead of believing that you have to hold people accountable, you held this belief instead …

People live up (or down) to our expectations of them.

Watch how your people respond to your changed belief. Imagine what would be different if people lived up to your high expectations instead of hovering under your low ones.

Cue the high energy and optimism that lead to the results you used to hold people accountable for achieving.

About the author:

Susan Fowler is one of the principal authors—together with David Facer and Drea Zigarmi—of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ new Optimal Motivation process and workshop. Their posts appear on the first and third Monday of each month.

Editor’s note:  This post is the third in a five part series on beliefs that erode workplace motivation. You can read Susan’s first two posts in the series by clicking on Rethinking Five Beliefs that Erode Workplace Motivation and Five Beliefs that Erode Workplace Motivation, Part Two.