Great Expectations: It Can Be a Dickens of a Time Holding Others Accountable

When you grasp the inseparable connection between expectations and accountability, you begin to discover the secret to holding others accountable.

Have you ever considered that the only thing you EVER hold people accountable for is the expectations you have of them? You probably were thinking it’s “results,” but it’s really the expectations you have of other people—the outcomes they will create, the results they will get, the work they will do and even how they will go about doing it. Everything fits into the bucket of expectations when it comes to holding others accountable.

The problem is that sometimes those expectations, our expectations, aren’t all that clear. Take, for example, the last time you had dinner at a restaurant. When the waiter approached, we would imagine you had some expectations about how you should be served—how many times he interrupted the discussion to check on “how you’re doing,” how often he kept your glass filled, and so forth. Amazingly, we never clarify those expectations we have at the beginning of the meal; but we do hold that waiter accountable for how well he filled those unknown expectations at the end with a tip.

Can you imagine how the “setting expectations” conversation could go at the beginning of the meal if we were trying to get it right?

Server: “Good evening. Glad to have you with us tonight. I will be your server. Let me begin by asking you a few questions. To be of greatest service to you tonight, I’m going to ask you not only how you like your food cooked, but how you like it served…”

You: Sitting in silence, stunned.

Server: “If you are in a conversation, do you still want me to interrupt you to see how things are going?”

You: “No. But can I signal you in some way to let you know I need you?”

Server: “Of course, I will keep my eye out and watch for that. How about filling your glass, should I keep it full?”

You: “No. I’ll signal you when I need it.”

Server: “OK. Anything else that you would like?”

You: “Yes. I would like to get through the appetizers more quickly and not wait an hour for the meal to be served.”

Server: “No problem, sir. I will move that part of the meal along.”

You: “Is this a dream?”

Now, you might not establish exactly the same expectation for how you want to be served, but that’s the whole point. In working in our organizations and with our teams, we too often take the “meal service” approach to holding others accountable: We don’t clearly set out the expectation and then surprise people when it’s over with an evaluation of how well they did guessing what we want. Not the most effective way to hold someone accountable…agreed?

When you grasp the inseparable connection between expectations and accountability, you begin to discover the secret to holding others accountable. The very process of managing those expectations is the act of holding others accountable. Performing this act in what we call the positive, principled way not only delivers results, it simultaneously raises both individual and organizational morale.

The Know-How Gap

In a recent survey associated with our comprehensive Workplace Accountability Study, 91 percent of respondents said they would rank “improving the ability to hold others accountable in an effective way” as one of the top leadership development needs of their organization.

Here are some more interesting tidbits from the survey:

  • 71 percent said that when they use the phrase, “holding others accountable,” they generally mean “getting people to do what they say they will do.”
  • 69 percent said that to miss timelines/deadlines in their organization is seen as either “unfortunate, but not career limiting” or “not really a problem.”
  • 82 percent admit to having limited to no ability to hold others accountable successfully.
  • 88 percent dread the fact that they’ll likely fail in delivering on important results now unless they get better at this.

No matter how you slice the data, it’s clear that nearly everyone struggles with what may be the most prevalent organizational deficiency today—the ability to hold others accountable!

The Positive, Principled Way

Successfully holding others accountable to deliver on expectations, and doing it in a way that makes others feel good about it, requires real effort and skill, even though the process itself is simple. Like many other aspects of one’s career, this, too, can be learned and eventually mastered. Doing it well yields predictable and satisfying results, taking away any mystery and confusion about what people are expected to do.

We’ve found most people view accountability as an after-the-fact, punitive concept, which sadly leaves people guessing at expectations regardless of their lack of clarity, resolving issues as they go, and troubleshooting problems as they arise.

When it comes to holding others accountable, they often picture someone with two hands clenched around someone else’s neck, asking the question, “How in the world could that have happened?” Their experience has taught them that holding others accountable means issuing threats, shouting rebukes, and doling out punishment.

Across organizations of all sizes, the following definition is far more useful:

Accountability: A personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results, and make it happen.

Get this right, and the power of positive, principled accountability begins to deliver amazing results. Accountability should not be something you do to someone else when they don’t meet your expectations. Instead, your efforts should be focused on creating accountability in others so they make the choice to own the results you are looking for and sign up to do what it takes to make it happen. That’s a much more productive accountability relationship that makes the act of holding others accountable all that more simple and effective.

The Accountability Fallacy

There is a common mistake people make when others fail to follow through on what they have been asked. The mistake: There is something wrong with the person who failed to follow through. We call this the accountability fallacy because it always leads us to place blame, rather than take accountability when things go wrong.

A more effective way of looking at the problem when people fail to follow through and deliver on expectations is to consider that while the person you’re holding accountable may have missed something, there is also usually something wrong with what “you” are doing. When you embrace this idea that you have a role in not delivering on the expectation, then you take control of future outcomes and internalize the continual need to improve your effectiveness with respect to holding others accountable. Thinking and behaving this way produces better results. You become more proficient at getting things done through others. When you see yourself as part of the problem, you empower yourself to join the team that will do whatever it takes to solve it.

A wise man we once worked with shared with us a view that we have found effective in our careers. He said that he always begins with the assumption that, in any given circumstance, people are doing their very best to fulfill your expectations. That’s giving people the benefit of the doubt, and we learned that this approach not only brings out the best in you, but, it allows you to bring out the best in them—particularly when things are not going all that well.

So, how do we more effectively hold others accountable? Three suggestions:

  • Frame the expectation and give it meaning. When you sit down with someone to create an expectation, make sure you’ve framed it up in a way that clearly defines what is expected (remember the waiter analogy we began with). Be sure to share the “why” behind it.
  • Make it repeatable. Make the expectation memorable by making it repeatable using abbreviations, a rhyme, or some other mnemonic. For example, you need sales improved by 25 percent by the end of the second quarter. You both agree to “25 by Q2” as a simple, repeatable expectation to create clarity and make the expectation memorable and measurable.
  • Set “by-whens.” When setting an expectation, mutually agree on key dates (and times), such as a follow-up meeting or completion deadline.

Pretty simple, but so is explaining to a waiter the type of service we might expect. Taking these steps ensures clarity and sets up a positive discussion when it comes time to hold others accountable.


The greater the expectation, the more critical it becomes to take these steps. Great expectations require a great beginning by establishing those expectations effectively. When that happens, you’ll begin to see better, on-time results. Employee engagement and morale will rise because people will know what is expected of them. Most importantly, the difficulties that usually accompany holding others accountable will melt away as the process of more smoothly managing expectations takes hold.

Roger Connors and Tom Smith are the four-time New York Times bestselling authors of an extensive body of knowledge on workplace accountability and are considered experts on the subject. Their company, Partners In Leadership, is a premier provider of accountability training and culture change services and has enabled thousands of companies and millions of people to achieve dramatic results. Learn more at