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  • Dr. David McNamee, Foundations for Leaders

Build A Foundation of Personal Accountability

In this series of posts, I have been exploring the importance of establishing a culture of trust. Without shared trust, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for a leader to be effective, for teams to work well, or for an organization to thrive during difficult times. In this last post of the series, I want to suggest that trust is built on a foundation of accountability and communication.

It’s challenging to establish a culture of trust when organizational morale and engagement are lowered by people who can’t be counted on. They flame resentments and dissatisfaction throughout the organization. But wise leaders address this issue: they reinforce personal accountability; starting with themselves. This statement seems obvious but it is not hard to find examples where personal accountability is noticeably absent. A quick Google search under the News tab turned up dozens of current examples of lapses in accountability in top political leaders, in business owners, even in children. In every case, when personal accountability is not present, neither is trust.

If trust is low in your team or organization, ask this, “Do all leaders in your organization practice and reinforce personal accountability?” Ask yourself, “Am I personally accountable?” There’s an old truism (dare I say, meme?) that says for every finger pointed forward, there are three pointing backward. Be honest and look hard at yourself before you point at others.

People demonstrate accountability by doing what they say they’re going to do, when they need to do it. Leaders promote this by holding people to their commitments and making accountability part of the performance assessment.

People demonstrate accountability by doing what they say they’re going to do when they need to do it. Leaders promote this by holding people to their commitments and making accountability part of the performance assessment. In fairness, leaders also need to provide their people with the means to meet these commitments.

Accountability also means tackling problems head-on rather than avoiding them. People trust coworkers who meet challenges with noble efforts to ensure that everyone wins. A culture of trust thrives only when people at all organizational levels fulfill their responsibilities. Managing work with measurable criteria expands trust in the system. Clarity is a strong trust builder, according to leadership consultant David Horsager, author of The Trust Edge: How Top Leaders Gain Faster Results, Deeper Relationships, and a Stronger Bottom Line (Free Press, 2012).

Accountability often overlaps integrity, in that people who admit their mistakes are trusted more. Inspiring this kind of transparency allows people to air their mistakes and learn from them. As I share with my coaching clients, be a leader who encourages learning, focusing on fixes instead of blame. The pursuit of solutions empowers people to reach new levels and expands trust.

Four Steps to Accountability

Okay, you’re convinced of the importance of accountability in building a culture of trust. So how do we make it happen? Here are four steps to consider:

1. Establish expectations –

Clearly describe your expectations of what accountability looks like…and what it does not look like. Usually, this starts with company policies but it should also be part of your daily conversation. Go a step further and MODEL what accountability looks like. James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge stated, “The more we believe that everyone else is competent and taking responsibility for their own part of the job, the more trusting and the more cooperative we’re going to be.” If you are modeling personal accountability, you will see others practicing it. Leadership starts with you!

2. Be Committed; Gain Commitment

Without commitment, including your own, we get compliance – or even resistance, but we don’t get trust. If you assume you have someone’s commitment just because you’ve discussed it with them you are setting everyone up for a fall. Phrases like “I’ll try”, or “I’ll do my best” are clues that you haven’t gotten personal “buy-in” or accountability. Take a servant leadership approach and ask for and truly listen to people’s concerns. Help them overcome their obstacles, explain the benefits, and help them figure out what they need to achieve the goal. Ask: “Do I have your commitment?” and “What needs to happen in order for you to commit to this?” Hold yourself to the same standard: Former New York Mayor Ed Koch was famous for walking up to people and saying, “Hey, I’m Mayor Ed Koch. How am I doing?” He constantly asked for feedback. He was being accountable in his constituents’ eyes.

3. Inspect what you expect –

You can’t just tell people they’re accountable, and then leave them to it. It may work for some, but not for all. Set up review sessions where you check in and see how people are doing. It can be as simple as a “coffee walk” where you regularly “wander” into workspaces with coffee cup in hand and ask for a quick update on things. It can be a more formal monthly presentation with updates on project status. I’ve done both and they’re very effective in building accountability and trust.

This accountability practice serves three purposes:

-It “front loads” trust because it lets people know that they will be held accountable for the activities.

-It gives you an opportunity to provide support in case things start to go awry,

-It offers you the opportunity to offer praise and encouragement to move people further if things are going well.

Inspection can be a trigger word if you use it to indicate a lack of trust or to micromanage. Done right, it shows what’s important, it shows that you care and that you’re there to help remove obstacles.

4. Provide feedback and consequences –

Feedback, both positive and negative, lets someone know how they’re doing. If expectations are not being met, then your people need to know about it, as well as how to get back on track. If expectations are being met or exceeded, then people need to hear about that as well. If performance is below expectations, then there needs to be consequences. Without consequences, there is no accountability. Here’s a key point: Feedback, both positive and not-so-positive, needs to be done regularly. I would suggest even daily at times. There is nothing more “trust killing” than waiting for an annual performance review to drop an anvil on someone’s head. One more key point: Praise in public, criticize in private.

Follow this process consistently as a leader, role model accountable behavior yourself and you’ll create a culture of accountability and trust within your team or organization.


Recently, at the end of my presentation to a leadership development group, I was asked what I thought was the root cause of the lack of a culture of trust. It’s been my experience that many trust issues stem from poor communication. People who don’t communicate clearly or authentically aren’t trusted. Properly conveying information makes conversations, emails, phone calls and meetings more effective and trustworthy. Leaders need to be trained in good communication skills and to provide employee training in communication skills and monitor employee progress.

Fear, anger, resentment, offensiveness, and rumors destroy trust. Leaders must take aim at these issues and set behavioral standards that are continuously reinforced. Encourage empathy, a key practice of servant leaders by asking your people to put themselves in other team members’ shoes when communicating. How will their words be perceived? Can they achieve a win-win situation? Can they step back from a conflict, calm down and form a more reasonable response?

Employees who communicate reasonably and professionally with each other raise workplace trust. Integrity is best revealed through communication, and unity is best realized in a high-integrity environment.

There’s no question that leaders set the tone for every aspect of workplace trust, and the necessary mindsets are passed down through the ranks. To reiterate a point I made earlier: If you aren’t seeing the culture of trust you want in your team or organization, look first to yourself and see what you are modeling. Leaders must put policies in place to monitor and correct undesirable behavior. Those who see the highest levels of coworker trust are those who provide ample training, support, and enforcement of trustworthy behavior policies.

What do you think? How has accountability and communication affected trust in your organization? What other tactics have you employed to establish a culture of trust?

Source: Dr. David McNamee

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