Two Questions That Create an Accountable Workplace Culture

If you want to attract and hold on to the best people, redefine accountability in your organization.

I work with a lot of senior leaders of organizations. One of the major challenges these leaders frequently share with me is their difficulty in hiring and holding on to good people. They want talented people, and they don’t want those talented people going to the competition once they have been hired and trained! So they’ll ask me, “Sam, what’s the best way for me to win and hold on to the talented people that will keep our organization competitive?”

Often, before I can even begin to answer that question, the phone will ring, and I’ll hear that same senior leader say something like this: “Jim, you do realize that you’re accountable for delivering X, Y, and Z by such and such a date.” The leader’s tone on this conversation is likely to be brisk and aggressive, the conversation is typically brief and one-sided, and the implication is always clear: if the person on the other end of the line doesn’t deliver exactly what’s expected, on time and under budget, there’s going to be trouble! These very same leaders are the ones most likely to tell me that they pride themselves on their organization’s “accountable workplace culture” – as though them saying “I am holding you accountable” was what created such a culture!

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the whole concept of accountability — a misunderstanding that undermines any and every attempt to recruit and retain a productive team. It never even occurs to these leaders that the quality of the conversations they’re having with their own people is adversely affecting their ability to attract and hold on to the best people!

As leaders, we have to change the way we think about accountability.


If we’re leading a team, we need to start that change in thinking by defining accountability for ourselves. Let’s define accountability as “keeping our commitments to people … starting with me keeping my commitments to you.”

Translation: Having an “accountable culture” doesn’t mean you hold everyone else hostage to your authority!

To the contrary, it means modeling accountability from the top down. It means you go out of your way to make commitments that support your team as they move toward fulfilling their goals – and it means you keep those commitments. It means accepting that an “accountable workplace culture” always starts with the commitments that you make to the team … not the other way around!

It is perhaps a little too easy for leaders to look past that word “commitment.” It is too easy to think, “Oh yeah, I know what a commitment is. Everyone knows what a commitment is. A commitment is when you say ‘yes,’ or ‘I will,’ or maybe even ‘I do.’”


A commitment is something you follow through on … no matter what. Just because you hit tough times does not mean you need to move on or that it is time to quit. Just because something is hard does not mean you should do something else. Where’s the commitment in that? A commitment is a pledge. It is a promise. It is not a maybe, or a hopefully, or a probably. It is an absolute. It is a relationship built on a foundation I call “No Matter What.” That foundation takes the form of two powerful questions:

  • What personal commitment do I demonstrate to my people, in both words and deeds, in every single interaction?
  • How do my people know with certainty that I am committed to them, and that I will be delivering on my commitments to them?

Notice how a conversation about, say, an important project’s current status changes when you make a habit of asking yourself two questions. Instead of saying “I hope you realize you’re accountable for delivering X, Y, and Z by such-and-such a date,” you’re more likely to say, “Jim, I’m committed to helping you always shine, reach your full potential, and move forward in the organization. With that in mind, what do you need from me in order to complete this assignment at a high level of quality by August 1?”

Guess what? That’s what a conversation in an accountable workplace culture sounds like! And following through on what you then commit to is what it looks like!

Holding someone else accountable, without clarifying your commitment to them, is like holding a gun to the person’s head. Who wants to work in that environment? If you stop to think about it, you’ll realize that the only reason someone stays in an environment like that is the paycheck they receive. Is that where you are right now with your team?

If so, you should know that that’s an extremely dangerous place to be if you’re a leader whose priority is attracting and retaining top talent. The moment someone offers that person a nickel more in salary, or offers to pay the same salary but work closer to home, you’re at risk of losing that talent you’ve worked so hard to find and develop!

When you hold someone accountable, it is all about them doing something for you. By contrast, when you are accountable to the people you lead, the conversation is transformed. It becomes about your working for their success. When you create an authentic relationship that’s based on you keeping your commitments to your people, based on you being accountable to them, they will naturally want to perform at a high level … and they will never want to go work for anybody else!

So: If you want to attract and hold on to the best people, change your discussions with them. Ask those two questions. Change the way you think about accountability. Understand that accountability only begins when leaders choose to demonstrate it, on a personal level, to their own people!


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