Accountability. We throw the word around quite a bit in leadership circles. We use phrases like ‘holding people accountable.” To many managers, it’s the stick we use when the carrot doesn’t work.

In the words of that great philosopher Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Can we hold people accountable?

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, Accountability means an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.

By that definition you can’t actually hold people accountable.  You can blame them, assign responsibility, and give them feedback, but that doesn’t make them accountable. Only when they are willing to accept responsibility or own the results of their behavior are they truly accountable.

This sounds like so much semantic nit-picking, but the difference is real, especially on remote teams. Accountability is in the mind of the individual. And when we work apart, it’s even harder to know what someone else is thinking. After all, we can’t see them burning the midnight oil, beating their head on a monitor in frustration, or slipping out the back to avoid a difficult conversation.

Why do people choose to be accountable (or not)?

For people to really be accountable a couple of things must be true. First, they need to understand exactly what the goal is, and what success looks like. That way they can decide for themselves if it is something they can accomplish and be willing to expend the necessary energy.

Second, they should understand why it matters. What’s at stake? This is tricky because while you can make the “business case” for setting a goal, whether people care about it is intensely personal. Yes, people want the company to do well, but they are far more interested it what it means to them personally. Will it help the whole team? What will it mean to their chances of promotion? Does the work matter to them socially?

What difference do I make?

Finally, people can only be truly accountable for things that are actually in their control. Folks who are accountable believe their actions will dictate the success of the work. If they think that no matter how hard they work it will be impossible to achieve (or more difficult than it’s worth) they may decide not to bother.

What is also true is that while much of what happens is outside our control, the more engaged and accountable we are, the more we work to control what is in our direct power and influence the things we can. It takes more work, so it had better be worth it.

Working remotely means we need to check in more often, constantly checking in on how things are going and checking for signs of disengagement.

Holding people accountable is awfully difficult—nearly impossible. Helping them be accountable is much easier and pleasurable for both parties.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

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