Just Do It: How to Identify and Address 8 Levels of Accountability

POSTED: Nov. 09, 2016

It seems that in every class I teach, I’m asked, “How can I get my direct reports to do what they are supposed to do?” I hear comments like, “I feel like I’m a babysitter” or “No one takes initiative” or “Everyone comes in and dumps their problems on me and expects me to fix them.” These comments are all too common. So how do we get our employees to take initiative and get the job done?

Let’s begin with the relationship between accountability and engagement. Getting your employees engaged in their work is an important aspect of accountability and sets the stage for a healthy, productive work environment. The level of ownership someone takes for the job they do is key. How are you ensuring that your employees are engaged? An engaged employee can yield up to 57 percent more discretionary effort than one who is not engaged.

Three important strategies for creating employee engagement include:

  1. Focusing on Strengths – This involves paying attention to what your employees are doing well and then letting them know. Sure we all have weaknesses, but a boss who is paying attention to what an employee does well, gives that employee confidence that they are not always under the microscope that reveals weaknesses. Strengths are where someone can excel. It’s where their passion is. It’s the value they can bring to the team or organization.
  2. Developing a Positive Boss/Employee Relationship ­– This strategy will help to promote employees to be more engaged. Do you know that you need five positive interactions for every one negative interaction to have a healthy, happy relationship? Think about your direct reports. What are your interactions like? Are you asking about their families, personal interests or lives outside of work? Are you paying attention to what is going right? If the answer is no and your interactions are focused more on corrections or providing critical feedback, concentrate on including more positive interactions. This basic strategy can have lasting positive impact on your relationship and, in turn, will impact how hard someone will work for you.
  3. Creating Emotional Safety – This strategy builds on the ability to focus on strengths and positive interactions, but it also includes how “safe” we make the work environment for our employees. If you are moody, with many highs and lows throughout the day, it can make it very difficult for your employees to feel safe emotionally. Your employees need you to be consistent and fair during interactions, as well as being confident that you will not call them out or embarrass them in public. Difficult discussions need to happen behind closed doors with the intent of clear positive intentions.

WIIFM (What’s in it for me?) – Once the stage is set, and we’ve created the most productive, positive work environment we can, we need to understand the employee’s motivation (WIIFM). Are they simply here for the paycheck, the benefits, challenges, gaining new knowledge, getting promoted, etc.? This information is important to know. Do you know your employee’s career goals? If not, why not? This is one of the most basic and best questions to ask as you attempt to uncover an employees’ intrinsic motivation. Once you know that answer, partner with them to help them get what they need out of their position by coaching, guiding and mentoring them. The more they feel you are supportive of what they want to do, the more they will be supportive of your agenda and organizational goals.

Accountability LadderThe Accountability Ladder ­–­­ The book “The Oz Principle - Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability,” by Conners, Smith and Hickman, is a fantastic book in understanding accountability. Their definition of accountability is a great one, “a personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving the desired result.

Among other things, this book helps supervisors diagnose where their employees may be on the ladder of accountability. Included below are the eight levels of the Accountability Ladder:

1. The first and lowest level is someone who is unaware of the situation. This may be someone who is new, on medical leave or just clueless as to what the expectations are.

2. The second level moving upward is someone who blames others for what is going on. They sound something like this, “If it wasn’t for my new boss, I wouldn’t have to do it this way” or “This new software program is terrible and it adds more work to my plate” or “My new co-worker is making me look bad.” I am sure you have heard blaming like this.

3. The third level on the ladder is rationalizing. A person who rationalizes will say something similar to, “I’ve been doing it this way for 20 years, it works just fine and I’m not about to change now.” Sound familiar?

4. Level four is hope it goes away. This is someone who thinks that if they just wait long enough, or wait until their boss isn’t looking; they can go back to doing what they want to do.

Levels one through four are considered “Below the line” or victim positions. I am sure you have encountered individuals like this. Some of your employees may be below the line if you have heard excuses similar to the following:

“That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

“It’s not my job.”

“I didn’t know you needed it right away.”

“It’s not my fault.”

“That’s not my department.”

“No one told me what to do.”

“I’m waiting for approval.”

“I don’t know.”

“I forgot.”

“I’m too busy to do it.”

“No one invited me to the meeting.”

“Nobody’s followed up with me, it can’t be that important.”

Have you heard any of your employees, colleagues or co-workers say one or more of these excuses? Be honest, have you said them? Of course you have! We all have. But the point is that if you continue making excuses, or you have employees that are constantly saying these types of statements, it is an indication that it’s most likely below the line.

The next four levels are considered to be Above the Line” positions on the ladder, and are more proactive and empowered positions.

5. Level five is acceptance. This level is at least accepting of the new change, process, software, technology, etc.

6. Level six is look for my role. This is someone who is not only accepting of whatever it is that has to be done, but looking to specifically identify their role in it.

7. Level seven is look for solutions. In every new process or new way of working, there can be conflict or challenges. Instead of letting it stop them, this person actively looks for solutions to these challenges.

8. And finally level eight is just do it! This is the person who does what it takes to get the job done.

“ Just do it!

’ Look for solutions

‘ My role

 Acceptance

 Hope it goes away

Ž Rationalizing

 Blaming

ΠUnaware of the situation


Take a moment to identify where your employees are on this ladder and also where you may be. If you or others are above the line, great job! Keep up the good work! Make sure you are telling those individuals what a great job they are doing.

Are you below the line? Review the following check list to see:

  • You feel you don’t have any control over your present circumstances
  • You blame others
  • You focus more on what you cannot do rather than on what you can do
  • Others come to you to complain about all of the “terrible things” that are going on
  • You feel you are being treated unfairly and you don’t think you can do anything about it
  • You are defensive in your communication with others
  • You focus on all of the reasons something can’t be done

Moving Up the Ladder – So how do we get others or ourselves above the line? Take a few moments to answer the following questions:

  • What is within your control?
  • What brings you here every day?
  • What is working for you?
  • What are your strengths?
  • What do you enjoy?

What did you notice about these questions? They are all positively focused. Spending the time to answer them hopefully gave you a new perspective or place to focus your emotional energy. These are also great questions to ask your employees if you feel they are struggling below the line. Questions like these can really open up discussion and help someone refocus.

Coaching People Above the Line – There are five steps to follow when coaching others above the line. These include:

  1. Actively listen
  2. Acknowledging what is being said
  3. Asking
  4. Providing feedback on how to move forward
  5. Committing to support their efforts

The most critical piece of this coaching model is number three. After you have spent time listening and acknowledging your employee’s current challenges, the question you need to ask them is, “Given your current circumstances, what else can you do to move forward?” This helps shift them from victim mode to action. Once they begin to talk about what else can be done, make sure you provide them with the feedback and the support they need to move ahead.

All of us have been below the line. All of us know what it’s like to feel as if we are being treated unfairly and are trapped in our current circumstances. The Accountability Ladder is a great way to diagnose where you or your employees are. The ability to understand and help individuals work through the reasoning of why living “Below the Line” can cause undo stress and overall misery, can help them move to a position that may be healthier and happier in the long run.