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When Did Accountability Become an “Offensive” Word?

Recently I was invited to speak at a zoom meeting with leadership professionals from across North America. I was talking about the challenge that leaders have with accountability within their organizations, when I was interrupted by one of the HR professionals in the group who told me in no uncertain terms that the word accountability was offensive to some people. “Leaders should not be holding people accountable, they should be holding them able.”

Fair enough, we do want to ensure that our people are “able”. Able to come to work, able to do their jobs, able to be respectful, accurate, timely, and on budget. We hire them because they are “able”. Once we know they are able, we need to put systems in place to ensure they are accountable.

For example, we were recently working with a company where there was considerable stress in the accounting department because people were not filling out their time cards. The accounting staff was having to follow up and check the accuracy of the pay period this was taking time and energy each and every week. The employees were “able” to fill out the time cards but no one was holding them accountable to doing so and thus we have a dysfunctional workplace.

The accounting team came up with a solution. People who didn’t fill out their time cards didn’t get paid. It was a system of accountability. Guess what? Within a short period of time, everyone was turning in their time cards! They were ‘able” and now they were being held accountable! Problem Solved! No offense taken.

Accountability shouldn’t be an offensive word in the workplace. If processes were in place to keep people accountable for their actions around their tasks and responsibilities, most organizations would have less stress and better outcomes. Accountability starts with us as leaders. If we aren’t accountable to doing our job which is to keep our team moving forward to fulfill the purpose of our organization, we are failing our team and setting an example for poor performance. Often as leaders we get caught up doing tasks other people should be doing. We think we are helping them out, but in a sense we are simply looking for ways to avoid doing our jobs. We know people are able to step up and do their jobs in the manner that they have committed themselves to, yet we fail to hold them to those commitments.

Accountability only becomes offensive to people when they believe that they are being picked on and held accountable when others are not. Implementing systems that support performance and accountability ensure that people are not offended when they are asked to do their jobs. We hire people because they are able, we put systems in place to keep them accountable and we support people to fulfill their purpose!

Dave Fuller, MBA, is an Award Winning Business Coach and the author of the books Profit Yourself Healthy and Pivotal Performance. Offended by the tone of this article or need some accountability? Email

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