Accountability Part 2: Holding Others Accountable


This is a 2-part series on accountability. In Part 1 we started at the beginning with self-accountability. Accountability always begins with oneself. After addressing accountability with ourselves, we now move to address how to conduct ourselves in a way that elevates the accountability in the world around us. Because we are in the world with others, we need a way to bring accountability into relationships in our personal and professional lives.

Naturally we see accountability missing in others and many of us wonder how we can effectively hold others accountable and create accountable environments around us.

Be sure to take the challenge at the end of the article.

Infuse Promises with Accountability

A promise is not a promise until it has a “what”, a “by when” and aligned-on “conditions of satisfaction”[i]

Part of the problem that happens between people is that we make and accept promises that are doomed to fail and have no channel for follow up. If someone says to me, “I would love to talk with you about your trust project” and I say “great,” there has been no promise, only a social conversation. And, I treat it that way — as a social conversation. If I think that we just made a commitment, I’m setting myself up to be disappointed and frustrated. When a promise lacks accountability, you are left with little more than emotional complaints that don’t seem to move the ball forward. With an accountable promise, you can now complain committedly in a way that moves things forward.

If I am interested in turning the above social conversation into an accountable promise, I will ask the person for the time, duration, and location they are requesting to have this conversation, any other conditions, expectations or desires, and what they hope to accomplish. We will then negotiate to align on these aspects. I have infused the promise with accountability by ensuring we are aligned on the following conditions:

1. TIME AND SPACE (date, time, duration and location)

e.g. July 13th from 1–3p at the Brown Dog Coffee Shop off Lemar St.

2. OUTCOME (specifically what constitutes success)
e.g. To connect; for him get a sense for what I have learned so he can apply it to his organization; to explore if there is a way for him to get involved

3. EXPECTATIONS (other invitees, expectations and desires of all parties)
e.g. 1–1 meeting; share my main insights and listen to his organizational goals; no product or follow-on conversation requested

4. ROLES (who is doing what)
He is asking questions and I am responding to them — no preparation needed from me.

In taking these next steps, you may find your initial assumptions are not what they are for others. Including these aspects before making a promise will give you a chance to choose whether or not it is a match for you. In the example above, perhaps this person is looking to give me their advice and I don’t want to spend two hours listening to their advice.

When you have such a promise, you are now in a position to follow up and discuss whether or not the conditions were met — in other words, you can hold the other person to account for what was promised: “you did not fulfill on your promise to me — we agreed you would complete the report by Thursday and instead you have given me an outline on Friday” or to follow the example above, “we agreed you would bring questions for me to respond to — given you did not do that, we will need to cancel our meeting”.

You are also in a position to acknowledge that the promise was fulfilled exactly as agreed to, “Sarah, thank you for putting this together on time and exactly to the specifications we agreed upon.” In creating a culture of accountability around you (see below), it is equally important to point out accountable behavior as it is to point out when it doesn’t happen.

When we allow vague promises to clutter our lives, we get frustrated, opinion swap, and whine about how no one is accountable. By infusing promises with accountability (yours and others) from the start, you create a solid foundation to hold others accountable.

Creating accountable promises creates precision.

Getting Over Very Human Concerns

Be loyal to a bigger commitment.

You have set yourself up with an accountable promise, and it was not fulfilled. At this point, I find many are stopped by concerns for how others will perceive them. For example, concerns for likeability, such as not wanting to come off as mean, harsh, or the grown up version of ‘un-cool’. Yet others will claim some version of loyalty — “I’m such a loyal friend I can’t call them out” or, “If I call them on their stuff, they’ll call me on mine.”

For all of this, a good question to consider is, to what are you loyal? Are you loyal to the other person’s smallness or bigness? Are you loyal to what you and others are committed to achieving? Or to looking good in the moment, substandard performance or haphazard results?

I find when I get oriented around the greater commitment that the promise is a part of, I can more easily hold others accountable. For example, if we are creating a new business together and I promised to have my projections to you prior to our meeting. When I arrive with spreadsheets half completed and a lot of justifications, you will have to get over any concern for messing up our ‘good vibe’ by holding me to account (never mind that I already did that by not doing my work). You can do this by grounding yourself in what we are creating together and staying loyal to that when conducting a conversation for accountability:

Kari, thanks for coming. We had agreed that you would send me your projections prior to our meeting so I could look over them. Do you agree that this promised was not fulfilled? What do you need in order to get these numbers done today? I know this project is equally important to you.

It is easy to have short term small concerns for admiration blind us prompting enabling behavior and shrinking rather than standing for the other person growing. In my experience, reputation and workability ensue when you respectfully and humbly hold others accountable inside a context of a bigger commitment.

Stop Asking Why

Replace ‘why’ with ‘what’.

Why questions give you explanations. “Why didn’t you finish the promo?” is going to give you a long explanation that will not necessarily change behavior in the future. Explanations are endless. Just look at any conversation with a young child, their ‘whys’ can go on forever because explanations don’t have an end.

Instead, ask questions such as ‘what happened that the promo was not completed?’, and ‘what happened that X happened?’ This may seem like it is the same thing, but it is actually a very different line of questioning. An example of a recent example in my life:

A: “What happened that the room was not set up properly?”
B: “I don’t know.”
A: “What happened that you don’t know?”
B: “I wasn’t here when they were setting up.”
A: “And what happened that you weren’t here?”
B: “I didn’t know that was expected of me.”
A: “Great, and is getting expectations something that would support you in the future?”
B: “Yes, I can see that it would. I hadn’t considered it my job to do that.”
A: “Okay, what do you need to put in place to ensure you get your expectations?”
B: “I will put in my calendar to sit down with you four weeks prior to our next event.”
A: “Do you have any requests of me in the meantime?”
B: “I’d like to make sure I know what is expected of me for the rest of this event.”

When you ask what, you will eventually come to a place where there is a clear action to take to move forward in an accountable way. In the above example, the shift was made from B only doing what he was explicitly told to do, to B being accountable for producing the outcome he was expected to produce.

Create a Culture of Accountability Around You

Our conversations and moods create the culture in which we find ourselves.

Altering an entire organization’s culture can be daunting depending on the size of the organization and your relative position within it; however, you can always impact the local culture around you.

Many people point outside of themselves as the cause of culture. What most of us don’t realize is that culture is what gets created through our own shared moods and conversations. Yes culture is created when the CEO opens their mouth, but culture is created even more with the thousands of conversations talking about what the CEO said — between cubicles, in the café, in text messages, etc. This means that every conversation, every interaction, every mood is contributing to the creation of culture around you.

We often think of moods as simply good or bad, but there is much more to them. Moods are the background tone of our existence — we live inside of moods — moods open up new possibilities and close down others. With our moods come an automatic assessment of how the whole situation is happening. Just look at how the world looks different if you are living in a mood of resignation or in a mood of ambition — what we notice and pay attention to is largely dictated by mood.

Many of us hold moods as something personal happening in our heads or bodies; however, moods are actually social and can be altered through conversation. This is good news. As we have said, are always impacting your culture locally and when you start shifting what you say, who you say it to, and the mood in which you say it, the culture around you follows suit.

When I first became a faculty member at a military academy, I was struck at how cynical the students and faculty were. As I engaged in conversations about what created that cynicism, I got more cynical and so did the culture around me. When I altered my mood to one of curiosity and my conversations to be about what people where interested in and passionate about, my entire experience at work altered and so did the culture around me. Alter mood and conversation, alter culture.

The moods of defensiveness and distrust are enemies to an accountable culture. Because we have encountered accountability so often as something that happens when results are not met, we immediately resort to blaming external factors and people. Inside such an organizational mood, simple questions trigger highly defensive behavior. It is survival.

By cultivating a mood of curiosity and bringing accountability into conversations, we can encourage a new relationship to accountability that sparks new conversations (e.g. “What prevented you from connecting John and Susan over email as promised by Monday?” or “What could we put in place to ensure we will meet our quarterly targets?” or “What can I learn from the types of questions she’s asking?”).

When we start to engage people in conversations about fulfilling on their promises, we may at first get throwaway answers like, “I have been really busy” or “I’m sorry, I forgot to do it.” If you keep at it, over time you will start to train the people around to interact with you differently and they will respond. I tried this with meetings. When someone called me late or showed up to a meeting late, I would say something like, “I noticed you are 5 minutes late, is everything okay?” In the beginning I would get a throwaway answer, but 12 months later I rarely have someone show up late with me. They may or may not be on time in other places in their lives, but they are always on time with me. We are always training people how to interact with us — one way or the other — we are always contributing to the culture we experience.

Orchestrating a local culture through new conversations and moods creates a productive environment.

Let Yourself Be Awkward

Don’t worry about getting it right — while the ideas in this article are very doable, they may require altering habitual conversational patterns. It takes practice over time and practice begins a bit awkwardly. You will get much better the more you practice. Culture doesn’t change in a day or even a month; it really takes several months to alter local culture (and it can take years for large organizations to fully change). This means that consistency is the key.

When you take on practicing the suggestions in this article (and the ones in Part I) to increase accountability in your life, you will create an entirely new platform for what you can achieve personally and professionally. This happens because things start working better, and with workability comes the opportunity for performance!



[i] Acknowledgment: I am influenced by Dr. Fernando Flores’ work on Speech Acts and several of his students to include Julio Olalla and the Newfield Network. I am also influenced by my previous collaboration with Michael Jensen and Steve Zaffron. Our work can be found at

If you are so brave …

Try something out in this article and let us know how it goes!