Feb 06, 2022

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What really makes people take responsibility for something and give it their all – to truly be accountable?

"Accountability” is one of those terms that is continuously used in business today. We hear it every day. One of management’s jobs is supposed to be holding people “accountable.” I don’t think anyone ever seems to question that.

It’s the “holding” part I have a problem with. I don’t want to treat the employees of any business I run like children. Nor do I think that works well, for several reasons.

First and foremost, no one likes being chastised by their manager if things they are supposed to do either didn’t get done or didn’t work out as they were supposed to. Secondly, managers don’t like doing that to people, either. It’s usually pretty uncomfortable.

So, what does work? What really makes people take responsibility for something and give it their all – to be accountable? Three things come to mind:

  1. The person. I don’t want to minimize the importance of having the right person in the job in the first place. You have to hire people who are responsible. It’s not hard to figure that out when you talk to someone. Did they work while in school and still make good grades? Did they have responsibility for taking care of their siblings or a sick parent? Do they pay their bills on time? Do they have a verifiable track record of success? What do they tell you as stories of when they had a real responsibility for something and lived up to it. And while we are talking about people – don’t forget it is management’s job (i.e., your job) to be sure they have the tools, equipment, and – in our business – the people assigned to them have the training required to be able to live up to your expectations.
  2. The culture. Does your firm have a culture that makes people want to take responsibility for something? Some firms do and some firms don’t. When management is too top-down control oriented, people may resist. They don’t want to feel manipulated or forced into doing something. But when that is a “way of life” in the organization (how I like to define “corporate culture”), it’s another matter altogether. This is why I like open-book management and sharing all of the numbers with everyone. No one (no one who is a good person that is) wants to let down their friends and teammates, if those are people they respect and care about. You cannot minimize the importance of the culture when it comes to getting people to take responsibility for something and give it their all.
  3. Ownership and rewards. This could be real ownership, or it could be psychological ownership. I’m not sure it always makes a lot of difference. In both cases, the person feels that if they are responsible for getting something done that needs doing, that they will be rewarded, either now or later. If what you do makes no difference in your mind, it is hard to accept responsibility for doing it. In truth, rewards are part of the culture. What type of behavior is rewarded, and what behaviors are punished? This is so critical to having self-accountability.

So, how does your firm stack up as it relates to accountability? Are you one of those people who thinks it is all about managers holding people’s feet to the fire? Or are you more enlightened than that – and realize that really it’s all about getting the right people in the company in the first place, creating and maintaining a positive culture where people want to perform, and giving real opportunities and associated rewards to people so they can better their lots in life? Those are my thoughts on accountability. 

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.