What Accountability Isn’t

We need to move past these terrible approaches to driving performance

Babatunde Mumuni
4 min readFeb 27, 2024
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

I promised a 2-part series on collaboration. This week, I was supposed to be concluding my thoughts on the article I started which can be found here. However, I am compelled to make a detour to address a burning subject at this time — accountability.

There are many ways to define accountability, but they all come down to a few key concepts: the idea that an individual/organization makes a commitment to another and accepts responsibility for making that commitment happen. It also comes with the implicit expectation that the other party can demand certain things related to that commitment.

In the world of work, this process of creating and demanding accountability has become perhaps the most emotionally fraught part of the job. It is dreaded by leaders and team members alike. The pressures of a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) world mean that businesses are under ever-increasing pressure to “deliver” and to do so, Line Managers have resorted to so many negative tactics.


Accountability is not about shame. It is not about making people feel bad about their inability to perform or slow progress toward desired outcomes. I find this to be so prevalent, and I must say that I don’t understand why this seems to be our go-to tool for “driving” performance.

Invariably, organizations where this form of accountability is accepted will lose their best people. Those who are secure enough to know they don’t have to subscribe to it. They are left with people who feel they have no options (yet) and therefore innovation and creativity die very quickly. If compliance is the only goal, teams like this may survive, but where flexibility and adaptability are required, failure is around the corner.


Think about the average business performance review session. Tempers flaring, voices rising. Depending on your organization/industry, you hear horror stories. Some are worse than others, admittedly. Very few reading this article would be total strangers to name-calling, snide comments, stonewalling, isolation, and other forms of active and passive aggression.

Sadly, one terrible thing about this approach is that it breeds fear and timidity. People are afraid to bring their best “selves” to work. It can also lead to damaging effects on mental health which could eventually affect overall productivity — thereby undermining the performance objective being chased in the first place.


It can very easily become about just “the numbers”. The business has a goal usually defined in financial terms that would make its stakeholders (read shareholders) happy. So we employ some simple calculations and decide what “per capita” output should be. In these systems, people are seen as no more than fungible cogs of the corporate machine!

Settings like this lead to “quiet quitting”. People figure out what the barest minimum is, they contribute their quota and keep getting paid until they decide to leave the organization. The sad thing is that there is such a fundamental difference between meeting quotas and achieving potential. There is so much more that gets left on the table.

Double Standards

This might be slightly different from the previously mentioned ideas, but it is just as significant. It stems from the “do as I say and not as I do” school of thought. There is probably nothing more destructive to accountability than when leaders try to play by a different set of rules. If you are not willing to model the desired behavior, what moral grounds do you have to demand it from others?

Leaders seem to forget that they are actually the initiators of the commitment. The commitment to business performance, and the commitment to leading — providing the vision and enabling environment for the team to thrive. They forget that they accepted and own the responsibility for keeping these commitments.

So, what do we do?

To be fair, accountability and driving performance can be very difficult. It can create very vulnerable conversations, especially when things are not going well. However, it can be very different.

In many cases, when we exhibit these negative behaviors, we are merely perpetuating vicious cycles we were exposed to early on in our careers. So, in some cases, we just don’t know any better, but we can opt-out! We can unsubscribe from these clearly sub-optimal approaches.

What can we try instead?

How about kindness? How about being polite? How about some empathy? Just even starting from the point of recognition that the person on the other side of the conversation is first and foremost a human being.

How about selling a compelling vision in the first place that people buy into and don’t need to be “driven” to do their best? How about being more intentional about creating jobs and environments that enable people to exercise their individual agency?

Admittedly, this is not easy and can be very messy. However, we have seen what the alternatives look like. I think the risk is worth it.



Babatunde Mumuni

I think and write here about life as one continuous experience, not fragments stitched together. I believe that we should partake of this with our whole selves.