Accountability Is Something We Do to Ourselves



“Accountability breeds response-ability.” — Stephen Covey

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from best-selling authors Roger Conners and Tom Smith on personal accountability and how it’s the key to your success.

Roger and Tom are authors of the bestselling books The Oz Principle, How Did That Happen?, and Change the Culture, Change the Game.  They started Partners in Leadership more than 19 years ago and have been helping countless clients create rapid culture change and greater accountability. Increasing your accountability increases your ability to respond and take action. 

Rather than just passively participate, you take the bull by the horns and you make things happen. You “own it.”  And when you own something, you’re engaged at a deeper level and things take on new meaning.  And it’s exactly this shift in mindset that  shapes your actions that shapes better results for you and the world around you.

Without further ado, here’s Roger and Tom …

Creating a Culture of Accountability

For over the last two and a half decades, we have focused our consulting and training work on helping leaders of organizations large and small create a Culture of Accountability in their organizations.

This has included projects and assignments with some of the worlds most admired companies and some of the toughest workplace environments.

Through all of this, we have become the most published authors on workplace accountability with our three bestselling books, The Oz Principle, How Did That Happen? and Change the Culture, Change the Game, all of which took the No. 1 leadership book spot on New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, etc…

The topic of accountability resonates for people in every type of organization and has been the subject of our careers. Here, we share with you what we have come to know as the five bedrock principles of accountability.

The Five Bedrock Principles of Accountability

The five bedrock principles of accountability are:

  • Principle One:  Accountability is a choice.
  • Principle Two:  There are two sides to accountability.
  • Principle Three:  Accountability begins by clearly defining results.
  • Principle Four:  What you create accountability for is what you get.
  • Principle Five:  The most important person to hold accountable is yourself.

Principle One: Accountability is a choice.

Let us begin with a real story that happened to Suzanne Volle. She works for a large women’s clothing retailer that is organized into about 100 districts with stores located throughout the United States. Sue is a District Manager and considered herself the typical manager at her level. Her 10 stores never really shined, but they also were never at the very bottom of the pack in terms of same-store sales. However, her company was looking to improve performance, so they ranked their managers into two groups: “renters” and “owners.” Sue met with her Regional Manager and was told that she was seen as a “renter.” That is, she was not seen as someone who was invested in getting the results needed and was simply playing a glorified “caretaker” role with her district.

When Sue heard how she was seen, she was devastated. She had been with the company 12 years at that point and was looking to advance her career. With this news, she had reached what we would call the critical point of accountability: she could either decide to get mad and go “Below the Line” into what we call the victim cycle or the blame game, or she could choose to get “Above the Line” and take accountability to change her circumstance by taking four simple steps, to See It, Own It, Solve It and Do It. The difference between being Above or Below the line is the difference between getting results or getting stuck. It is not wrong to go Below the Line, it’s just not very productive and can become very frustrating.

This is the choice everyone must face when it comes to their own personal accountability for getting results. Do I go Below the Line when I am faced with tough, difficult obstacles or do I choose to get Above the Line and take accountability for my circumstances and get the results I want?

Principle Two: There are two-sides to accountability.

Webster’s Dictionary defines accountability as “subject to having to report, explain or justify; answerable, responsible.” In other words, accountability is something imposed upon you, probably when things go wrong. We think this definition misses another, even more important side of accountability. That is the personal ownership that people should demonstrate when they truly take personal accountability for something. When you take personal accountability, you own it. You buy-in and invest. You tell yourself, this is mine, I’ve got the ball. You ask yourself, “what else can I do to make progress, overcome obstacles and achieve the result?” You don’t waste time blaming others or waiting for someone else to solve your problems, you actively engage and deeply pursue solutions. This proactive, before-the-fact aspect of accountability is the essential ingredient that makes accountability a bedrock principle to optimizing personal and organizational performance.

Accountability, correctly understood and effectively applied, produces results. And with those results comes a level of personal satisfaction that can be achieved in no other way. Sue, in the story above, made a choice that she would take accountability for being seen as a “renter” and that she would now become an “owner.” Helping people make the choice to operate Above the Line and take accountability for their circumstances and overcome the obstacles they face is an essential skill that anyone who manages and leads people must learn to master. When you create that level of personal accountability first, your ability to execute both personally and organizationally becomes all that more effective. When you skip that step and try to execute on a foundation that lacks this personal accountability, then you get problems, not solutions; mistakes not innovation; frustration, not motivation; and excuses instead of results.

Principle Three: Accountability Begins by Clearly Defining Results.

This may seem like common sense, but our experience has shown it is not common practice. In our research, surprisingly 9 out of 10 leadership teams cannot give a consistently aligned answer between team members as to the top three key results the team needs to achieve. They always have a general idea, but are often unable to provide the details. Accountability begins by clearly defining results. A clear definition of results, one that everyone throughout the entire organization can understand and repeat, are essential to getting your accountability system to work.

In a leadership workshop, we asked the European management team of a large pharmaceutical company we worked with what the top result was that they needed to achieve. They told us it was “BUC,” which stood for Business Unit Contribution. We asked the team, “what’s the number?” Everyone went silent. No one wanted to say. We asked them to write down the number on a piece of paper and pass it to the CFO in the back of the room. There was a $300 million dollar variance between the high number and the low number; and that was the senior management team! You can’t hold either yourself or others accountable for unclear results. Well, you can; but it will destroy morale and stop your progress. And you can’t hold yourself accountable for unclear results. Accountability begins by clearly defining results and that always yields alignment, engagement and achievement.

Principle Four: What you Create Accountability For Is What You Get.

Back to the story with Sue, she realized that what she was getting, in terms of results, is what she was creating accountability for. So she chose to create accountability for succeeding with an annual promotion, the women’s suit sale contest that runs for 4 weeks. She states, “You have to understand, we never won anything. My district has always been at the bottom. I’ve bought into ‘it’s the economy, it’s the weather, people don’t buy suits in our city, I can’t sell suits.’” Sue decided that the result they needed to get was to win the women’s suit contest. She went to work at creating accountability around the weekly VIP event held in the stores during the sale. Here, they closed the stores for 2 hours and allowed the invitation-only customers for shop with special discounts. Sue not only let everyone know what the desired result was, but she went on a campaign to achieve it. Her surprise visits to the stores during the VIP sales provided the forum to create personal accountability in the stores. Her visits even revealed one store manager who said they were doing the sales, but weren’t.

Her clear accountability for the result her district needed to achieve helped the store managers get everyone involved. Store associates networked and invited friends to the VIP sale. Store managers came up with innovative promotions and discounts for the customers. The result: Her district finished No. 1 in the entire company in the women’s suit sale! She was recognized at a leadership conference and asked to speak about the transformation that occurred. What you create accountability for is what you get!

Principle Five: The Most Important Person To Hold Accountable Is Yourself

We like to ask, who is the most important person to get Above the Line? Of course, that’s you!  For Sue, the payoff for taking personal accountability was impressive and lasting. In 2006, Sue was ranked 89 out of 94 districts in sales % over the previous year. In fiscal year 2010, she was ranked in the top 3! The reward: a trip to Costa Rica with some of the executives of the company. The payoff: the personal satisfaction that comes from being fully invested and successfully achieving results. She’s no longer seen as a “renter,” but a true “owner” that makes things happen. Applying these principles has even produced a better relationship with her father that might not have otherwise occurred.

What’s more, the power of her personal example impacted a fellow district manager at work. She and this good friend used to “crab together, ” having conversations that would allow them to wallow Below the Line and get stuck in the blame game, feeling the victim. What happened to her friend? In a subsequent Suit sale, her district finished No. 2 in the company!

That’s the power of personal accountability. That’s what happens, every time, when people are faced with difficult circumstances or tough obstacles and they make the choice to operate Above the Line. When we do accountability to ourselves, it is empowering. When someone does accountability to us the wrong way, it feels threatening. Making the choice to operate Above the Line and be accountable has an enabling affect on everyone around you. Nothing can take the place of your good example when it comes to operating Above the Line.

We are sure that you have had both positive and negative experiences with accountability and would appreciate hearing about them.

For more information on Roger and Tom and their exciting work, check out the following resources:

Roger and Tom’s Bestselling Books

Above the Line, Below the Line, See It, Own It, Solve It, Do It, The Oz Principle, How Did That Happen? and Change the Culture, Change the Game are trademarks of Partners In Leadership.


  1. I liked this article very much. I was not familiar with the terms above the line and below the line in this context and I appreciate how it gives me a sort of visual reference to where I choose to be. It’s easy to think something other than yourself has the power to place you either in the above or below position when it is clear to me now that it is a choice we make in regards to where we opt to be on the accountability scale. I liked too how it was shown that making above the line choices inspires those around us to do the same.

    Thanks for always sharing such thoughtful stuff with us, J.D. 🙂

  2. Hi J.D., Roger and Tom,

    Good article and timely. As I continue to investigate what we call education (in the US anyway,) it has become apparent to me that the inability to hold oneself accountable or take responsibility for one’s life begins when we enter school.

    If you have no say as a child and move through the day via ringing bells and other people’s choices, how will you suddenly be responsible/acountable at 18 or 21 when you’re cast off into the world?

    Owning your life and your decisions needs to be encouraged from day 1.

    Thank you! G.

  3. Nicely stated. I know a young woman who went that extra mile–actually several extra miles–but management perception could not be swayed by her extraordinay efforts–& results. She chose to go to a different organization where mutual accountability was explicit–& now she’s thriving.

    J.D., thanks for introducing us to Roger & Tom. Good luck, gents!

  4. I drive myself crazy working on being accountable – making my job hunting a full time job in itself and working, working, working all the time – when I got my last rejection letter, I just decided to “fast” for awhile. Get back to reading, which I love to do and writing my gentle motivational material. This has brought up all my fears so I can take a great big look and work on them.

    I have found over the years that each person needs to feel accountable in a marriage to make it work…the blame game/ intimidation game never work…even if they are wrapped in the most loving, beautiful designer paper – I can even see that my marriage works because I am hyper accountable ( I get room and board for my efforts 🙂 )

    I just read yesterday Geneen Roth’s new book Lost and Found about how she lost all her money in the Bernie Maddoff scenario and because of all her practice of being accountable to her food and weight issues, after 3 days of being overwhelmed she was able to accept her full responsibility for her situation and start finding her accountability and future – she does have quite an amazing group of friend too!

    Your words are very much easier for me to interpret into my own situation after reading Roth’s very personal and poignant story.
    I can see I need to step into my suffering and fear – dip in again – ( and add some more true friends) to find my way.

    Thank you JD for introducing these folks.
    What Giulietta reflected was something I have found true also

  5. I work to develop personal accountability in my kids. I think most kids are not born with it – they tend to shift responsibility away from them – but it can definitely be taught.

  6. Excellent article. I have never regreted holding myself accountable when I’ve needed to, but I have regreted not holding myself accountable. It is a way to show that we have respect for ourselves and others. Thanks so much!

  7. I’ve had more than a few results when it comes to accountability. If I step up and do my part usually something fabulous has happened. Another part in this is keeping agreements that can help build trust, confidence and really build up some momentum. Ever have that thought of, “Wow, this could really work… where could this take me?” that is where I am now.

    Over the past weekend I participated in a seminar where personal accountability was one of the big topics covered with a slightly different view. There is the similar idea of one having a role in creating one’s future though there is the question of how much control can someone have. For example, could I create the reality of winning the lottery just from buying one ticket and really believing it’ll win millions of dollars? I don’t think so but that may just be me. Another point of contrast was how in the seminar there was the idea of something to be learned out of each experience. Why did I bring this on myself? being the big question as there may be some unconscious belief that caused the result rather than just the conscious beliefs. The seminar was quite something that if someone is open to hearing a new way of doing things then this could be very worth while. At the same time, if someone is really stuck and doesn’t want to do any work to get out of it then I could the seminar not really having a lasting impact.


  8. This seems like sensible advice.

    Problems with #3 though – accountability for results. If someone is accountable for the results they need to have the authority and resources to achieve the results. More than clarity on the desired result is required.

    I guess the authors know this but I thought it was worth saying.

  9. Hi guest posters.
    Never seen a double guest post before – well done on a great idea JD.

    Guess I’ve got to move to principle number 5 – ” The Most Important Person To Hold Accountable Is Yourself”

    Has to be the foundation of the other principles, has to be. We know that instinctively but we sometimes forget – thanks for the interesting and gentle reminder boys.

  10. Roger & Tom, Fantastic article. I have heard of The Oz Principle and would love to read it among the others you have written.

    I find that accountability keeps us grounded. It’s great to dream the big dream and to go out and reach for everything we want in that picture, and accountability is the ticket to making sure we achieve those small notches along the way, dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’. It keeps us honest with ourselves and with others!

    JD, good to see you, my friend! Hope you’re well!

  11. JD, a pleasure to be on Sources Of Insight for the first time, I’m impressed with what I see.

    Before I dive deeper into your site, I’ll comment on this post.

    I think accountability is a tricky subject at times. We know we must be wholly responsible, deep down, yet we fear being at fault, so we refuse to take on responsbility. We refuse to accept that it is us, and only us, that is responsible for our actions. No-one is to be responsible.

    By being at fault, we will admit that we were wrong in doing what we did. By admitting this, we open ourselves up to criticism and ridicule. Who ever admits that they were wrong? But we must admit that we are wrong from time to time, and that we are responsible for our actions, words and thoughts. To do so would be to accept ourselves, to accept that we are indeed human, we make mistakes and we get it ‘wrong’ from time to time, but we don’t beat ourselves up over it. We accept what we did and move on.

    Who can say that? Who can openly say that they made a mistake, and then carry on with life? Those who are self-responsible, that’s who. Those who know themselves, who have accepted responsibility and accountability for their actions, and who are comfortable with themselves. They don’t need to ‘pass the buck’. They’re ready for life 🙂

  12. Hi JD,
    Very enlightening. I like the concept of renter and owner. It got me thinking about how do I view my blog. Am I a renter or an owner in terms of accountability? Do I have clear results? Do I operate above the line? I’m still pondering, coming up with clearer answers, and enjoying the process immensely. Great stuff!
    Loving blessings

  13. Thanks I love this no bullshit approach to accountability. That above the line ownership approach is the only way to create desired results. Waiting for someone else to do something on our behalf is crazy. Even if they did I doubt we would see it from the victim’s mindset.

  14. Excellent and powerful writers you’ve assembled here, JD. The reality of accountability is the only reality that gives us title to our lives; If we are living in any other reality, we find that we are handing title to our life over to the circumstances or people in the world.

  15. Today I sat with clearly defined results in mind. I got pretty close on them, and even managed to take a couple side-trips that taught me things too.

    As with Vered, I endeavor to teach my child about personal accountability,which ties in well with taking initiative and owning up for mistakes. Not dwelling on mistakes, but learning from them!

    You keep landing some awesome guest posts, J.D. But I’m not surprised — you make good stuff happen!


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