Hardwiring Accountability and Keeping Employees Engaged

By Cy Wakeman

An organization doesn't have to settle for one or the other.

Many in learning and development circles today are talking about accountability, but few organizations have been successful in ensuring that personal accountability is hardwired into their talent and everyday business operations. This ability to hardwire the competency of accountability into the workplace is, without intent, being eroded through many of our great efforts aimed at enhancing employee engagement.

Modern leaders often cite their frustrations with using the training we give them to enhance accountability in their organizations because they fear it will erode the progress they have made in engaging their teams. In a recent study we conducted at Reality-Based Leadership, 72 percent of managers surveyed said that enhancing engagement and increasing accountability levels are, in their opinions, mutually exclusive activities. Those continuing to hold this false belief tend to err on the side of lowering standards and accountability levels in the hopes of "buying" loyalty, allegiance, and engagement. Therefore, while highly valued in theory, when it comes to the real world, engagement efforts trump accountability behaviors time and time again.

What it is

A truth that we have discovered in our work is that engagement without accountability creates entitlement. The two major deliverables for leaders—engagement of their people and accountability for organizational goals—are not mutually exclusive and are in fact intricately related. Engagement is fueled by accountability.

How it works

Traditional management practices have led us to believe that employee engagement and happiness come from working in an environment that is free of stress or problems. This belief has driven us to try to create the perfect work environment for each individual employee. We believe that if we can perfect an employee's circumstances, she will be happier and more engaged.

But the truth is very different. True happiness and engagement flow from developing a mindset of personal accountability. Once people begin to view the world through the lens of accountability, they start to understand that they can affect their circumstances and situations. They begin to realize that they are not the victims of what happens to them and are instead the architects of their lives. This mindset equips people to handle anything that happens to them, regardless of how bad it is. When individuals truly find a mindset of personal accountability, they begin to attain authentic, sustainable happiness and engagement in their work and their lives.

Armed with this knowledge, leaders must adopt a different approach to engaging employees. It isn't about working to perfect their circumstances, but instead helping employees to be skillful and successful within those circumstances. Building a results-driven workforce begins with cultivating and celebrating personal accountability at every level within the organization. Hardwiring accountability into your workforce is highly dependent on teaching leaders tools they can use daily in their meetings to reinforce personal accountability rather than focus on how circumstances must change for employees to be successful. Engaged action planning is a great tool with which to start.


Personal accountability is the mindset that results happen because of one's own actions. Accountable people succeed in spite of any circumstances. People who are high in personal accountability are resilient, committed to results, accepting of the consequences of their actions (good or bad), and continuously learning from their experience. These are the drivers within your organization who are making things happen for your business. They take full responsibility for their results, they mitigate the risks of your plans, and they make great team members. Plus, they raise the bar for everyone around them.

To create a workforce that is engaged in a way that creates remarkable results, it's imperative to stop trying to take the pain away, and instead start to equip your employees with the abilities they need to deal with the random shocks of pain that are involved in working in the modern economy.

Personal accountability is a product of both nature and nurture. While some individuals possess a higher natural inclination toward accountability, it can be learned. Personal accountability is developed through the following.

Challenge. Experiencing projects, assignments, and tasks that have a significant risk of failure and that call on an individual to stretch out of his comfort zone enhances learning and development of new and less developed competencies. This process forces the individual to quickly find what worked and what didn't, then to adapt and move forward.

Experienced accountability. Being held externally accountable consistently by people and systems forms the mindset of internal accountability. Over a period of time, the concept that one's results are a product of one's own actions is reinforced and solidified.

Feedback. Regular developmental and performance feedback from a credible source helps the individual to understand and internalize how his specific behaviors and choices are contributing to the results. The feedback must be rigorous, consistent, and ongoing to be effective—but, most importantly, short. To truly boost accountability, feedback from the leader needs to be short, and self-reflection—the true fuel of accountability—long.

Self-reflection. Engaging in regular self-reflection and introspection about one's progress is critical. The focus of self-reflection is to account for one's role in life's results and extract the lessons that will empower a different response in the future. Leaders can fuel accountability with assignments for self-reflection to support individual methods such as meditation and journaling.

I lead an exercise that adds accountability to an organization's action-planning efforts (see the checklist). The exercise is focused on what the employee or team of employees can do to influence their own circumstances. This is where accountability is cultivated and employees begin to take responsibility for their own engagement.


Learning to cultivate personal accountability in yourself and others is a powerful means of transforming your organization and its results. It also takes time and consistent, intentional learning activities that work with your engagement efforts rather than counter to them. Engaged action planning is a great tool to use when you want to hardwire accountability into your engagement efforts.


Add Accountability to Action-Planning Efforts

  • Share with your team the company’s engagement survey results.
  • Post three large flipchart pages in front of the group.
  • On one sheet of paper, write down what team members would like to improve in their work environment.
  • On a second sheet, record what employees are willing to do to improve in these areas.
  • Determine whether these ideas are robust enough to create the type of workplace outlined on the first sheet.
  • Record on the third sheet what the group needs in terms of support from you or the organization.
  • Create action plans around the ideas, with timelines and responsibilities. Conduct regular check-ins.


Hardwiring Accountability. 2013. www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLniEDr-U_s.v=qLniEDr-U_s.

Morukian, M. 2016. “Fostering a Culture of Accountability in the Federal Workplace,” The Public Manager. www.td.org/Publications/Magazines/The-Public-Manager/Archives/2016/03/Fostering-a-Culture-of-Accountability-in-the-Federal-Workforce.

    Content Track: Management Development

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