Why accountability without empowerment is a sign of a toxic culture

TLDR; you can’t expect accountability without giving people context and freedom first.

Accountability: the fact or condition of being accountable; responsibility.
Autonomy: the right or condition of self-government.
Empowerment: authority or power given to someone to do something.

Accountability, autonomy and empowerment are words often used by organisations, used more frequently in isolation than together, to describe to their employees what they want from them. A value on their manifesto that they expect their employees to portray. The problem is, these concepts are interdependent. Expecting autonomy without accountability is a recipe for disaster. Expecting someone to be accountable without empowering them with the tools they need to succeed and the psychological safety that makes it ok to make mistakes is at best lazy leadership. Through my own personal experience of varying organisational cultures, I’ve captured a few brief thoughts on how this applies to my industry.


Accountability is a concept I explore often. In coaching and mentoring, an extremely important part of the mentee achieving their goals is helping them to realise they need to be accountable for the journey. It’s also sometimes an uncomfortable part of management, to ensure team members commit to their own goals that they’ve set themselves. It’s a key part of developing as a leader, a point beautifully described in the 15 commitments of leadership (I wholeheartedly recommend the book) and dozens of other self development books. I’ve seen it go horribly wrong however when leaders make a team “accountable”, but flip a table when they take a risk, or worse don’t do the thing exactly how the leader described.


Got it, so we should just give employees complete freedom right?! 

Well not exactly. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, in his book No Rules Rules talks about how “Freedom and Responsibility” is a little more complex than that. Hiring the right people, making feedback safe and eliminating controls are the foundations for giving autonomy through empowerment and accountability. While I wouldn’t recommend some of the practices he puts in place (like firing people on the spot if they’re not the right fit), I’ve been lucky enough to work in a purely generative culture too, and I can say that there are striking similarities between methods used in the book and “real life”.


The empowerment part is important. We need to get this in place before we expect any kind of accountability from our teams. In software development, we often use DORA’s State of DevOps research programme for highlighting the capabilities that are indicators of high performance in software delivery. Culture, including psychological safety which is so important in assessing a team’s feelings of safety and empowerment, is shown to be predictive of software delivery performance.

“According to research by DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA), organizational culture that is high-trust and emphasizes information flow is predictive of software delivery performance and organizational performance in technology”


When Mike gets his crayons out…

Westrum’s organisational culture a typology used for categorising organisational cultures into groups that illustrate a maturity level towards high-trust generative culture. You’ll see from the table below that there are many aspects in this table that are indicators of empowerment and accountability – or lack of it.

Table showing Westrum's typology of organisational culture
From Accelerate: The Science of Lean Software and Devops: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations

I’ve included a fourth model from experience in addition to the typology above, of which I’ve definitely been subject to:

I’ve mapped these four culture types onto a rather crude chart to show where each of them lie on an accountability / empowerment matrix:

The culture autonomy chart. Generative cultures have both high accountability and high empowerment, enabling a high degree of autonomy.

Some examples of the culture autonomy chart:

  • Generative Culture – “That was a great idea. Sorry that it didn’t work but it looks like the potential reward was worth the risk, good call. Let’s look at what we’ve learned from this.”
  • Bureaucratic – “I knew that wouldn’t work. I was just giving you a learning opportunity. You know that Dave on the testing team already tried that, don’t you?!”
  • Pathological – “How did you fail, I told you exactly how to do it! I need to tell the directors that it was your fault now or it will make me look bad!”*
  • Laissez Faire – “Who are you? Oh right, the guy with the ideas. You failed? No problem, go try another one. See you in a few months”**

*true story, unfortunately
**Also true story, though infinitely more fun than the previous one

As the global landscape tells us frequently, freedom does come at a price. Even in truly generative cultures there are expectations and obligations that come with autonomy, and consequences for not fulfilling these expectations. The difference in good cultures is that these expectations are instilled not through the carrot or the stick, not by adding extra processes that stifle innovation, but by good communication and leaders living good cultural values by example.

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