Assigning Accountability

A great poem was written by Charles Osgood some years ago about accountability. It involved four SANE individuals and an important task to get done. The four people were Somebody, Anybody, Nobody, and Everybody. Everybody knew there was a key task to complete which could be done by Anybody. Everybody thought Somebody would do it. Nobody did it. Somebody got mad because they thought Everybody would do it. But Nobody did. Osgood’s poem is similar to the idea that the best way to starve a dog is to task two people with feeding it. Too often balls are dropped because we either don’t know where responsibility for a task lies or we assume that it belongs on someone else’s shoulders. Accountability is being responsible for something. It is not something that can be shared. Individuals only are accountable.

It’s worth noting that the absence of accountability in the workplace is a big factor in workplace morale. We tend to see imposing accountability as a negative or critical task. As a result, managers try to avoid doing and only grudgingly touch it during annual performance reviews. The unintended consequence is that morale and culture are compromised as is the case in Osgood’s poem. Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton write in their book, All-In, “A profound truth that all managers should internalize is that more than anything else, employees really do want to do a good job, and holding them accountable is an important way we help them do just that.” Recall our OPRAH method where with ownership comes personal responsibility which invites accountability and brings happiness. If you’re a manager, how do you assign accountability appropriately? How can we help others be accountable in order to build their commitment, contributions, and workplace happiness? To earn an A in assigning accountability, follow three steps: Clarity, Check-In, and Coach.


Do you know what you want? Can you describe it in a way that is understandable and actionable for others? When delegating it’s our responsibility to help others help us. We must provide detailed direction to help them know what we’re asking them to do and deliver. Seth Godin in a blog post from December 14, 2021 encourages leaders to “Write a better spec.” Godin considers being unclear as “lazy and a defense. It’s an abdication of responsibility.” Leaders lead by paving the path. The destination must be defined in detail. After all, it’s not just the devil that’s in the details, delegating is in the details. Robin Sharma wrote that “clarity precedes mastery.” A separate advertisement for Bolle ski goggles gives us “You can’t ski what you can’t see.” A clear picture of what we’re after is a precursor to progress. We need to know where we’re going in order to chart a plan to get there. As true as it is for our own goals, it’s as much the case when we’re seeking to delegate a task. As Yogi Berra wisely noted, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” It’s the leader’s responsibility to define the area of accountability we’re seeking to assign. Victor Cousins wrote, “In everything the ends well defined are the secret of durable success.”

Managers can fail to communicate clear desired outcomes for several reasons. It can be because they don’t know what is required. It can be because they are scared of being considered micromanagers. It can be because they think they have clearly communicated expectations. It can also be that they are fearful that where clear direction is offered, other better options may be ignored or overlooked. We can be scared to advocate for a direction as we aren’t sure if what we’re advocating for is correct. None of these are acceptable reasons to fail one’s employees. They are all excuses that represent obstacles to accountability.

We can’t deliver well where we aren’t sure with what we’ve been tasked. If we’re to be accountable we need to know what is the task? What is it you are looking to have done? Build business or grow revenues isn’t helpful direction. Neither is cut costs. Grow our commercial lines in transportation by 5% this year is much clearer, for example. How clear is the outcome? Is there a prototype, a comparable website, a picture, video, article that can help someone understand what the end product looks like? What will the task be used for? Why is this task needed? What is the definition of done? Who decides when the project is completed? Is there a timeline? When will it start? When should it be finished? Are there objective standards against which the work will be measured? Are these known and have they been communicated? Is there a test program? If you’re the delegator, how and in what way will you sign off that the task has been completed properly? What do you want the person to do if they encounter an issue/hiccup/obstacle? Having the answers to questions like these is an indication that you’ve achieved the clarity desired to delegate a task and assign accountability.

Yes, we can overinvest in this step. Where we do, we fall into micro-managing. A balance between being too vague and too overbearing in our direction must be found. If we’re imposing accountability by seeking continuous sign offs from staff at each step, we may be doing more harm than good and suck the soul of our staff evaporating their engagement. Nonetheless, accountability presupposes that there are very clear rules in place that have been agreed upon by all parties. Be clear. Before we can do a good job, we need to know what the job is. A clear, objective, defined outcome is essential.

Embedded within creating clarity we work to ensure that the one being held accountable is properly equipped to do the assigned task. Have we provided the proper resources? Are we clear with respect to what will be needed to complete the delegated task? Is collaboration involved? If so, are we ensuring those that will be working with the accountable party are available and aware of their involvement? Have we ensured there’s proper access to software programs, buildings, meeting rooms, and other tools that will or may be needed? Is there a budget for the project? In what situations will separate approval be required? The more details like these are thought through, the greater the clarity component of accountability is being achieved. Assigning accountability or delegating starts with detailing direction, ensuring appropriate resources are available, and defining what done is. These tactics are at the heart of a system known 360 Delegation.


Cultivating clarity isn’t a one and done effort. It’s an ongoing process. It’s important that leaders check in regularly with their staff to ensure that alignment between expectations of both sides is maintained. You will need to determine how frequently the person assigned accountability will need to check in and present the project’s progress. The check-ins are intended for both parties. The person responsible is offering an update on how they are doing, where they are, what the next steps are. The delegator is not just passively listening. They are responsible for continuing to ensure proper resources remain available. An additional goal of check-ins is to take care that the person responsible isn’t becoming overwhelmed or stretched too thin. Check-ins reflect to the person responsible that they aren’t alone. They haven’t been abandoned. Support, encouragement, and guidance are required from the delegator.


From checking in we move to the final component of coaching. Coaching involves offering direction to help course correct and keep things moving in the desired direction. It involves being honest in pointing out gaps between desired outcome and where things are. Consider using questions to prompt thought and anticipate obstacles. By coaching, we’re encouraging exploration of second order consequences. What happens if we do X? Have you considered Y? We’re not detailing the next steps, we’re guiding and supporting. It’s affirming that we’re here to help.

A useful framework to assign accountability while supporting autonomy that supports clarity, check-in, and coaching is offered from John Whitmore in his book Coaching for Performance. Whitmore sees a leader’s role as that of a coach where a core responsibility is to GROW others. GROW becomes the framework to guide a conversation between a leader and their charge. GROW is Goal, Reality, Options, and Will.

We start by working with someone to define direction. We want to involve them in setting their own goal and allocate as much of the 4 T’s of autonomy as we can. That is, leaders work with their reports to help them uncover the task, timing, technique, and team that will be used. The more someone is part of creating this plan, the more likely they are to be committed to it. From getting a clear picture together of what done looks like, a discussion about where we are right now is had. What does reality represent? Do we both agree about from where we are starting? This includes an understanding about what is happening now and what efforts, if any, have been undertaken to date and to what effect. Recognizing our reality and bearing our goal in mind, the conversation then moves to exploring options. What can we do? What options exist? Leaders seek to extract answers to these questions from their reports and ask if their own input is desired instead of providing answers directly. The leader is a guide on the side working with their team member to develop a plan that will help that team member GROW. Finally, the conversation moves to detailing exactly what will be done and when. This plan reflects W of GROW for Will be done.

This type of coaching from leaders is not at all micro-managing. It’s working together to help team members develop autonomy while accepting accountability. There’s a plan. It’s one against which results can be measured. The doer developed the plan. Both the manager and the doer understand it and agree to what the intended outcome is as well as how the outcome will be achieved. From here, we can check in regularly to see how our new reality is reflecting our plan and goal. Are we on track? Is adjustment needed? Again, the leader is having a conversation with the doer driven by the doer.

Responsibility is at the root of leadership. President Truman nailed it when he said, “the buck stops here.” Someone must own outcomes. Leaders lead by example. In Extreme Ownership, authors Jocko Willink and Leif Babin emphasize the importance of accountability writing, “Effective leaders that lead successful, high performance teams exhibit Extreme Ownership. Anything else is simply ineffective. Anything else is bad leadership.” Leaders can be role models of accountability by listing publicly their goals. It can be done weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually, or each of these. By sharing your objectives and discussing your progress on these with your team, you demonstrate the value of accountability firsthand. Additionally, leaders can both show appreciation privately and publicly to individuals that are delivering on their personal accountability. In these small ways, a culture of accountability is grown.

Responsibility is the opposite of excuses. If no one is responsible for an outcome, then no one is in charge. If no one is responsible for an outcome, the outcome is the result of luck, chance, or circumstance. If no one is responsible, no one can take credit. If no one is responsible, no one can be blamed. We want to be accountable for the areas over which we’re responsible. However, we don’t want to be left hung out to dry. Nor, do we want to be the fall guy or patsy for others. We want to be cut loose to perform while being properly instructed, trained, equipped, and supported. We’re accountable, not alone. Responsibility rocks. It is something those that have strong self-belief, ambition, and aspirations want. Possibility begins with accepting responsibility. Ability follows from accepting responsibility. With clarity, checking-in, and coaching built on the GROW framework assigning accountability becomes achievable.