The Circle of Consequences: The Importance of Accountability

by / ⠀Startup Advice / April 22, 2013

The Importance of AccountabilityAccountability means answering or accounting for your actions and results. It is something every leader wants more of from his or her team. Accountability is like rain—everyone knows they need it, but no one wants to get wet. It’s easy to talk about how “they” need to be more accountable, but it can be uncomfortable when we apply

it to ourselves. When is the last time you heard someone say, “I really need to be more accountable for my results?” It doesn’t happen very often. Yet we get more accountability from our teams by being accountable to them. It’s a two-way street.

Although almost every organization we have worked with struggles to some extent with accountability, retailers tend to do a better job of boosting accountability than most. A primary reason is the specificity of their performance metrics and expectations. Mike Barnes is a client and Group CEO for Signet Jewelers, a retail jeweler in the United States and United Kingdom operating 1,900 stores with 18,000 employees under the names Kay Jewelers, Jared the Galleria of Jewelry, J.B. Robinson, and H. Samuel, to name just a few. Barnes expressed his perspective on accountability this way: “We have to own our performance every day regardless of any ‘noise’ that might surround that performance. I think of the phrase, ‘Don’t talk to me about the storm; just bring in the ships.’ We have to have personal and joint accountability for our performance, whether it’s great or not, even when we feel that circumstances out of our control affected the performance.”

The bottom line is that accountability means letting your actions rise above your excuses.

At its core, accountability is really about specificity—specific expectations, specific consequences, and specific language. Take a moment now to reflect on the performance of each team member. Think of the lowest-performing team member. By default, that person’s level of performance sets the standard for acceptable performance on your team—it’s the performance level that you as the leader allow. It’s a very public and visible standard regardless of how much we might want to sweep it under the rug or turn a blind eye to it. Winning leaders realize that they owe it to their team to always raise that standard, and it can be done by getting specific. Ambiguity is the Achilles’ heel of accountability, but specificity enables you to raise the standards of your team’s performance.

Specific Consequences

To boost accountability, broaden your definition of consequences. We tend to think of consequences with respect to the short term—the immediate impact of our performance (positive or negative). That’s the easy part of defining specific consequences. But it still leaves a lot to the imagination.

As the circle of consequences below illustrates, we need to help employees see and understand the longer term, the downstream impact of their performances on team results, on the organization, on customers, on shareholders, and ultimately on themselves.  When employees see how their actions help or hinder each of their various constituents, the personal consequences of their performances become evident.

External performance is ultimately a reflection of internal commitment.

The personal impact on an employee might include opportunities for more (or fewer if the performance is substandard) promotions, development opportunities, exposure to executives, public recognition, responsibilities, flexibility in the job, oversight of others, ownership of projects, and/or financial rewards. It is fair and appropriate to bring personal performance full circle back to these consequences.

Our clients have found it useful to follow the circle of consequences with respect to their own leadership behaviors, particularly when they face tough situations. It illuminates the impact of their actions (or lack thereof) on various constituents and usually moves them from choosing avoidance to choosing courage.

Even on the most productive teams, there will be instances in which we have to muster leadership courage to address performance problems and ensure appropriate consequences. Earlier we mention Elaine Agather, head of J.P. Morgan Private Bank’s South Region. She is a beloved and direct leader who understands the big picture of consequences as it relates to her role as a leader. Agather states, “The team is bigger than any issue at hand. The leader has a personal accountability to the team to have tough conversations and to occasionally make tough decisions with individuals.”  Winning leaders such as Agather choose their team over personal discomfort. It reminds us of our son’s former football coach, Chris Cunningham, who would preach this same leadership concept of “team over me” with this visual (big team over little me):

As with expectations, when we specifically explain the consequences of individual performance up front, we minimize the tough conversations we need to have later on.

Lee J. Colan, Ph.D. and Julie Davis-Colan are leadership advisors.  Colan also authored 12 books and this is an excerpt from his latest book that he co-authored with Julie Davis-Colan, Stick with It:  Mastering the Art of Adherence.  Learn more at

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About The Author

Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is Co-Founder of Under30Experiences, a travel company for young people ages 21-35. He is the original Co-founder of Under30CEO (Acquired 2016). Matt is the Host of the Live Different Podcast and has 50+ Five Star iTunes Ratings on Health, Fitness, Business and Travel. He brings a unique, uncensored approach to his interviews and writing. His work is published on, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Huffington Post, Reuters, and many others. Matt hosts yoga and fitness retreats in his free time and buys all his food from an organic farm in the jungle of Costa Rica where he lives. He is a shareholder of the Green Bay Packers.