The 3 C’s of Accountability

The 3 C’s of Accountability

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"It’s an accountability problem." This is one of those diagnoses that sound definitive and inspire lots of nods around the conference table – right up there with “it’s a leadership issue,” and “it’s a communication problem.” But a diagnosis is no cure.

We believe that if we ask what “accountability” really means, when it’s present, when it’s missing, and why, then the answers will lead to a prescription. In conversations and seminars with leaders over many years we have come up with an operational definition of accountability that actually leads to a cure.

Accountability exists when these three elements exist:

1. Clear request from an authorized manager
2. Commitment from the subordinate to complete the assignment
3. Consequences for performance

Sounds simple enough, but each of the three elements can be difficult to deliver, which is why accountability can be elusive. So, a little more on each:

1. Clear request from an authorized manager

Often, we mistake our own redundancy for glistening lucidity. Or we mistake our audience’s apparent agreement (or fawning) for their genuine understanding.

One tech company’s CEO confided to us that he wanted to fire seven of his eight vice-presidents. He was serious. “They just don’t get it,” he complained, explaining that he couldn’t get them all pointed in the same direction.

But he had been talking in broad strokes – his request was not crystal clear. So we spent time with each VP, clarifying expected outcomes well enough to pass the bar-bet test.  Their performance increased dramatically, and the CEO whittled his “firing list” down to one particular VP  (probably a good pick).

Sometimes leaders give unclear direction because they have thought about something so much that, after a while, it seems intuitively obvious. It’s like when someone uses an acronym on you that you couldn’t possibly know, but that they use frequently. Or when a clerk is flummoxed that you don’t know a bureaucratic rule that she lives with daily.

And sometimes leaders give unclear direction because they are still unclear about what the destination will actually look like. The reasoning seems to be, “Let me think the big thoughts and you run along and figure out the details.” But there’s a difference between tactical details and precise direction; leaders shouldn’t have to figure out all the details of execution, but they should be able to spell out precisely the outcome they’re seeking.

Clarity rarely arises from dictate, but it can arise from dialog, which brings us to the next point.

2. Commitment from the subordinate to complete the assignment

A subordinate doesn’t need to agree with the brilliance of an assignment, but they do need to commit to do it. Two elements are critical to commitment: an opportunity for dialog and an answer to the question of why the assignment is important.

Except in rare instances such as military operations or medical emergencies, leaders can create the opportunity for dialog, even if it’s only a closing line to an email: “Please contact me directly if you have any questions or suggestions concerning this assignment.”

Through dialog comes understanding – for both parties. Sometimes the authorized manager gets smarter about what she’s requesting, or ought to be requesting, after talking with someone who actually does the work. And this opportunity to ask questions, clarify expectations, and offer ideas also implies mutual respect.

Dialog often leads to conveying why something is being requested, which is the second requisite for commitment. Knowing why gives people context for thinking about how best to approach their assignments and, perhaps more important, it gives their tasks meaning. “Do it because I told you,” works no better for grown-ups than for kids because it provides no context. In fact, we believe that it’s a leader’s moral duty to continually help his people see how their work fits into a bigger picture.

Part of meaningful context is that work should be a matter of consequence, both for the organization and for the individual. That takes us to the next point.

3. Consequences for performance

If you have ever sat in a meeting, made a clear request of one of the participants, received sincere commitment . . . and then NOTHING happened, the problem might have been an absence of performance consequences.

Your work likely fell into a queue behind other work on that person’s plate and, guess what? Your work (of no consequence) was continually displaced by other work (of consequence), until your work dropped off the plate. Work without consequences tends to be regarded as inconsequential.

This is one reason our first component of accountability specifies that the clear request must come from an authorized manager. (We inserted this critical word years ago at the suggestion of now-deceased management theorist Elliott Jaques). Managers who have been duly authorized can deliver performance consequences; for others, it’s harder.

Now, we hope that you don’t equate the word consequence with punishment, like one of our friends who thought it sounded like we wanted to take non-performers out back and shoot them. We don’t … at least, most of the time.

The word can have a positive connotation, too, as in rewards (Plus, it starts with a C.) Performance consequences can range from a private, “Thanks! That was good work,” to public praise, bonuses, promotions, and opportunities to do preferred work. But they can also include reprimands, negative performance appraisals, and firings. Research has shown that a 4:1 ratio of specific compliments to corrections maintains an optimal work environment. (We’re pretty sure there’s no research on taking non-performers out back and shooting them.)

Interestingly enough, performance consequences need not happen every time to be effective; only the possibility need happen every time to create accountability.


So, there you have it, our 3 C’s: Clarity, Commitment and Consequences. We believe that if you remember -- and apply -- them, you will find a cure to your organization’s accountability problems.


        • I fear that your definition of consequences to mean rewards and punishment is too narrow. What about delving deeper into the issue to figure out why the clearly communicated goal was not achieved by the committed supervisee — perhaps unforeseen circumstances, lack of resources, higher priorities, pivoting due to recent changes, etc. Even if it is determined that the supervisee failed the supervisor, often the best consequences are additional training for the supervisee or giving the supervisee the task of fixing the mess. Jumping straight to rewards and punishments skips over many approaches that are more productive.


        • Well done, with one qualification. If management is a significant source of the ‘enablers’ for that subordinate to succeed in the expectation, and fails to do so, it can be 3Cing 24/7 yet true accountability will never be accomplished.

          The executive does not have a good faith and valid expectation regardless of the clarity and consequences if he/she (unknowingly) withholds, sponsorship, resources, support and whatever else is critical to task achievement.


        • Thank you!
          Dominic D. Faraci II.


        • My sense is that this prescription may be more suitable for industry than DoD, and certainly less suitable for Navy. Although I agree that your three C’s are the ingredients of an environment in which both parties are equally…addressable, or responsible, or accountable…to one another, I don’t think it’s that way for us. In the world I live in, accountability is simply something a subordinate owes his/her senior and the system. It would be nice if the orders given were clear, but accountability exists in the absence of clarity. In fact, accountability exists even when the accountable individual has no knowledge of a bad deed under his/her authority and responsibility. And commitment isn’t an issue, it is a given.

          Having said that, I still think your approach makes good sense in ‘normal’ work settings…I just wouldn’t try it on a military audience.


        • Nick Buechler

          Bill and Wendi,

          Like the thoughts on clarity, commitment, and consequences… however, this addresses accountability from only one direction… subordinate to superior. I believe it should be more of a two way street… no discussion here for the manager’s accountability to his or her subordinate. Simple example would be to replace manager and subordinate in line 1 and 2. Having integrity… doing what you say you will makes this two way relationship accountable. Realize it is much more complicated than my simple rambling.

          Nick Buechler
          Colonel, US Army Retired


        • Hey, you need to know that this article hit the nail on the head. I have been pulling my hair out trying to get employees to get their jobs done.

          So here is what was so great. The dialog you created in the article is exactly what I have been saying to myself and the frustrations I feel. You captured the language, situations and feelings exactly.

          Well done and thank you for giving me a nice structure to getting more out of my workers.


        • Ray, you’re very welcome! But, you know, it’s fair to say that you AND your workers will be getting more out of each other with the three C’s. 🙂

      • Thanks for another great article. You put into words what I deal with on a daily basis.

        I always stress to managers that dialog about assignments will save them time in the long run. I also suggest the wording of the initial request is important. If the manager says” I would like you to… “ that is not a direct request. Managers need to say point blank “This is your assignment. I need it completed by… Please come to me with any questions, I am here to help” The manager should be the leader.


      • Excellent article, from which I intend to steal ideas. Here’s one in return: Even when managers communicate the outcomes fairly clearly, they do not make their priorities clear (Most often it is “Everything is Priority One” or priorities shift day to day depending on what the manager is most concerned about) With several companies, I’ve had success with priority lists posted physically or electronically, so the order of things doesn’t get hazy. If there is a change, everybody knows about it.


      • Bill/Wendi – I still have my 3Cs coffee mug from your class and I’ve used this concept for years! Good to see you bring this up again as I see this is still a concept leaders and others do not understand is fundamental.


      • The “C’s the Day!” mug? That brings back memories. Very glad you’ve found the concept useful over the years. Thank you!

    • Thank you both for this timely article! I am working with a client and they are very focused on “accountability”. I always share the 3C’s and then help them identify examples and how it works in their organization.

      Have you read Carl Larson’s book, When Teams Work Best? His research along with Frank’s surfaced clearly that when people are clear about the management practices, systems, processes, requests, etc. it drives confidence in others and confidence drives commitment. I think accountability is along those lines in helping people feel comfortable about understanding what they are suppose to do to succeed.

      Thanks a bunch to you both. Bev O


    • Great comment, Bev!
      Yes, we quote Larson in our classes and recommend both his (and Frank LaFasto’s) Teamwork:What must go right/what can go wrong (a classic!) and When teams work best. Those guys do great work!

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