14 Dec 2017


Accountability is a key driver of high performance. It’s a partnership that the leader starts and the team member willingly enters.

Words: Jeremy Snape

The word ‘accountability’ often evokes an instant emotional reaction. We associate it with when an individual has been weak or has shirked responsibility and so must defend them self and justify their behaviour. There has clearly been a mismatch between what someone expected to see from them and what they have displayed, and it goes beyond performance. It is about desire and commitment; it questions their character.

If we try to unpick the psychology at play we see that at the heart of accountability is a mutually beneficial partnership between the leader and the team member. This isn’t something that the leader directs. Rather they create an environment where people choose to be accountable for delivering their share because they see the end game and know they'll be proud to play their part.


When a leader is under intense pressure from the boardroom to deliver results they need to be self-aware. If they can recognise the signs of rising stress levels in themselves they can shield their team from some of the pressure, rather than just passing it on to them. A great leader understands the importance of an upcoming event and feels it, but during the build-up they’re still able to create a calm and rational micro-climate for their team.

A poor leader, meanwhile, is so focused on the impending moment of judgement that they don’t notice their communication becoming direct and impatient, and the fact they are barking orders as a matter of course. They wonder why no-one is listening and why nothing is changing and this only increases the frustration. It's a vicious circle.

Directive instruction of this kind can cause fear of failure or an urge to diminish responsibility for fear of the consequences. This isn’t accountability; at best it’s compliance. The team member basically reverts to doing their job because they’re told to do it and because they know that there will be penalties if they don’t comply.

This is where we tend to misunderstand what accountability is all about. It is a partnership, and so before we demand more accountability from our people we should ask ourselves what we are doing wrong. Accountability is, after all, usually a symptom of failing systems, communication and motivation, all of which are largely the responsibility of the leader.

The leader needs, therefore, to be accountable for creating the right environment. They need to think about what might encourage their star performers to step up to the plate.


Any team member in sport or elsewhere wants to feel valued, valuable and accountable for delivering their part in their team’s success, but sadly this isn’t always the case. In the worst-case scenario an individual who is performing badly may feel vulnerable and not trusted and so won’t progress. That person may feel that their career is shrinking along with their importance to the team and if their negativity persists it can spiral dangerously until it pulls the whole team apart.

When you’re in that situation it can be difficult to see a way through. Maybe the starting point for the leader who wants more accountability from their team is to raise that team’s level of ambition. Part of being a high performer is, after all, striving to achieve goals that you never thought possible. It is doing the unthinkable with the challenge and support of those around you. These special times fill you with pride because you set an inspirational goal and sacrificed so much to achieve it together.

Who doesn’t want to be a vital part of a team’s quest for a daring goal? Once the goal is set, it is the leader’s job to outline a clear strategy or pathway to achieving it, breaking it down into key roles and responsibilities. In a dynamic team there will be sub-teams and projects that need to be delivered, so for each element it’s important to explain who is accountable, who is responsible, who is consulting and who is just supporting. Ambiguity is the enemy, so be focused and clear with what you expect.

Boost your team members by focusing on their strengths and inspiring them with what they can achieve if deliver this for the team. Be clear about what you expect from them and what you won’t tolerate, and be observant of the smaller details, because some people will try to cut corners. Most importantly, show your team what it means to be accountable; actions speak louder than words.

Great leaders demonstrate their trust in others first rather than waiting to see evidence of accountability. In simple terms, a spark ignites when people feel valued, confident and clear on their roles.

When everyone is striving for greatness, making sacrifices to achieve it and seeing their efforts translate into success, a culture of honesty and accountability grows naturally. When the shame of failure is replaced by a pat on the back, teams kick out the excuses and have the courage and conviction to be accountable. They win together and lose together and there is no greater place to be.