Accountability Requires Clear Expectations.

By Seth R. Silver and Timothy M. Franz, 2022

Arguably, the biggest word in people management these days is engagement.  But a close second is accountability.  Every manager wants his/her team to be accountable; team members want their boss and each other to be accountable; and most customers want their providers of goods and services to be accountable.  It is broad term that implies ‘taking ownership’, ‘meeting requirements’, ‘admitting mistakes and fixing them’, and ‘keeping one’s word’.  It is a standard ofcompetence and trustworthinesswhichis for organizations what oil is to machinery.  If there is no accountability, things eventuallygrind to a halt.

But accountability does not exist in a vacuum.  Simply telling someone they are now ‘accountable’ for all things related to their role is usually insufficient. It requires understanding and acceptance of what is expected, both in terms of behavior and results. Otherwise, people are held to standards they may not know exist, or have not agreed to.

We see this situation often in our consulting work in the realm of professional relationships, particularly between managers and their teams.  It happens when someonedamages a key relationship with their colleagues or their boss, and then ends up in the ‘penalty box’.  They are in trouble because, in effect, they did not fulfill important expectations related to the working relationship. As author Blaine Lee observes: “Almost all conflict is the result of violated expectations”.  For example, a managerdid notadvocate enough forhis/herstaff, an employee failed to communicate proactively with key partners, or someonewas slow to act oncritical feedback from their manager.  All of these are important relationship expectations, and one can state that they should be obvious.  Except that sometimes, these expectations are not obvious because they were notmade explicit, and so mistakesget made that can be costly to one’s reputation or career.

Here is thepoint.  In order for there to be consistent accountability in our professional relationships, there must first be explicit conversation and agreement about the mutual obligations/expectationswithin that relationship.  This includes how often both sides will communicate and in what ways, how feedback will be exchanged, the respective roles and goals, agreed-to processes, how each defines ‘support’ and specifics on how to provide it, identification of hot-button issues, etc.  In short, it means developing clear ground-rules for the working relationship that help both sides to feel respected, fully supported and able to succeed.

Here are a few quick practical suggestions to help this conversation happen and develop the related set of relationship ground-rules:

  1. Embrace a mindset of meaningful partnership.Leaders and team members must both have the mindset ofmeaningful partnership. This is not ordinary collaboration or teamwork. This is where both sides recognize that they are highly interdependent, their fates at work are tied together, they can only truly succeed if the other does as well, andhence their focus must be on fully supporting the other.  Both partners accept that they are equally accountable for the health and success of the working relationship. It is partnership at a level that is above and beyond, has real impact for both sides, and is based on deep connection, cohesion, coordination and collaboration.
  2. Develop a workplace covenant.Leaders and teams need to create workplace covenants. In brief, a workplace covenant is a practical relationship building process that equips any two parties who have an important work relationship to establish and continuously improve their partnership. By exchanging behavioral and attitudinal obligations and expectations, refining these into respective covenants of what each owes the other, both parties adjust to help the other feel supported and be successful. It should be noted that the word ‘covenant’ has no religious connotation here, but instead simply refers to vital behavioral promises that have obligatory weight.  Both partners agree to adhere to these covenants as a matter of personal and professional integrity.
  3. Review and use the covenants. Leaders and teams should then regularly reflect on their covenants, review them informally and formally, share them with new team members, discuss them during one-on-ones, and use them as a basis for providing routine praise and helpful feedback so that both the leader and team continue to feel supported and be successful.  In short, the covenants become the means by which the manager and team ensure that their working relationship stays positive, and even gets better over time. And when this happens, everyone will know clearly what is expected of them, and can be more consistently accountable to their partners.

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Seth R. Silver, Ed.D., is the principal of Silver Consulting, Inc., and has worked with hundreds of diverse clients on leadership, cultural change, employee engagement and workplace success. Dr. Silver was also an associate professor of Human Resource Development at St. John Fisher College.

Timothy M. Franz, Ph.D., is an Organizational Psychologist, Professor of Psychology, and interim Chair at St. John Fisher College. In addition to his academic role, he also works as an organizational consultant through his firm, Franz Consulting. Their new book, Meaningful Partnership at Work: How the Workplace Covenant Ensures Mutual Accountability and Success between Leaders and Teams (Productivity Press, Aug. 27, 2021), provides a powerful model of how work partnerships can be created and sustained. Learn more at or