How to make accountability feel like a reward, not punishment

by | Mar 9, 2024 | Blog | 0 comments

Accountability. Enigma? Punishment? Reward?

Whatever your opinion of accountability, you’ve got to acknowledge it’s a challenging topic. Many people think they want accountability – maybe for others rather than themselves – and they’re not always sure how to get it.

According to Hank Evans, the author of Winning With Accountability – The Secret Language of High Performing Organizations, accountability has two components: 1) the individuals who have responsibility and 2) the team/group accountability, which is the roll up of all the responsibilities of the individuals.

As a math formula, here’s what accountability looks like:

personal responsibility + team/group accountability = ownership

Ownership is made up of organizational commitments, which are basically social commitments that individuals make to themselves and to one another to serve their team/group and their organization.

Traditionally, accountability has gotten a bad rap for being a type of punishment. Individuals are often fearful about being blamed and/or punished for not following through on commitments they make or are assigned with or without their consent

However, if you’ve been exposed to accountability as a reward, as I was (more about that later), you’ll have a much more positive view. You’ll consider accountability as a way to grow and develop as well as make progress toward goals for yourself, your teams, and your organization. And because of that, you’ll be empowered to act, contribute toward solutions, and own them.

As I listened in on a recent webinar about accountability from the NeuroLeadership Institute and thought more about the topic, here’s how to compare the two opposing perspectives:

Accountability as punishment Vs. Accountability as a way to grow and develop  
You play a “blame game” and tend to see: You see a series of goals to pursue and in doing so, you’ll experience:
Threats (with increased cortisol in your bloodstream, the hormone that regulates your body’s stress levels)

Ways to avoid making mistakes, which means you may be playing not to lose, rather than to win

Fear of failing

Having minimal to no control over outcomes

Doubts of feasibility and your capability

Desire to delay or diffuse responsibility, such as:

“Social loafing” (letting others do the work)

Unwilling to make commitments

Making commitments for others; a la “volunteering” them

Rewards (with hit of dopamine, known as the feel-good hormone)

Control over what you can and need to do

Understanding that your contributions matter

Sense that you’re shaping your future

Opportunities to grow and learn

With guidance from leaders, being able to recover from mistakes and learn from them while ensuring you don’t act negligently

Increased trust of colleagues and leaders

Increased ability to think ahead and imagine what you need to do to get the job done and what contingencies you need to plan for

Being extremely aware of your commitments

Being more attentive to the outcomes and having a greater sense of ownership


If you’re a leader who’s ready to shift to reward-oriented accountability, you’ve got to take some very intentional actions to change yourself and the organizational culture. These include:

  • Defining what accountability and success look like.
  • Taking these specific actions:
    • Showing humility.
    • Building psychological safety within the team so team members are willing to speak up, especially about commitments and deadlines.
    • Role modeling new ways of working, including making sure everyone involved is clear about the requests and deadlines for actions.
    • Recognizing and rewarding individuals for working differently, including making efforts as well as getting results.
    • Explaining the difference between “making mistakes,” “being sloppy,” and “being negligent.”
    • Communicating regularly, especially around:
      • The purpose of accountability.
      • How open communication and clear signals about accountability help everyone focus and quiet all the noise.
      • How you’re trading the fear of punishment for the feeling of a reward when moving toward our goals.
      • Being accountable to each other builds greater trust, even when we’re operating with uncertainty.
      • Accountability and trust are advantageous and beneficial for all of us.
  • Supporting a growth mindset in employees. For those employees with a fixed mindset, provide them with support to help them change their mindset so they will be more inclined to practice new ways of working and become more comfortable stretching themselves and trying new things.
  • Building strong social components into accountability to help individuals. For example, encourage people to have “accountability partners” who they can work with to help them stay on track on a regular basis (daily, once a week or whatever). Peer pressure helps promote accountability. What you say out loud to another person has a better chance of moving you from talk into action. Peers help their partners fulfill their commitments. Remind peers to cheer each other for making efforts and acknowledge each other for meeting deadlines, achieving goals and other positive actions. (By the way, this is how I learned accountability as a powerful growth tool. For more about this, check out my Forbes Coaches Council blog How to get the most out of your accountability partner calls.)
  • Encouraging everyone to make and keep promises to themselves, including making specific commitments (including dates) and then acknowledging themselves when they follow through. Also, reminding everyone to note how they feel when they keep their promises – often a clearer focus and more energy – and a greater sense of accomplishment. These acknowledgements give you that feel-good feeling, which makes you want to continue keeping your promises.
  • Also encouraging everyone to not beat themselves up if they slip or make a mistake. Instead, be aware of what happened, reset, apologize to others for not following through (if appropriate), and move forward.

Shifting accountability from punishment to reward can result in huge positive benefits for everyone – just ask my accountability partner, me, and everyone else who views accountability as a way to grow, develop and become better. For more tips, check out another of my Forbes Coaches Council blogs, How to balance compassion and accountability for behavior change.

And if you want help making the shift, just ask.  


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