With Martin G. Moore

Episode #205

Leading in a Low-Accountability Culture: Q&A with Marty and Em

Every piece of content we produce focuses on the link between leadership and performance. Value creation is the name of the game, so knowing what value is in your context is a prerequisite to delivering it.

But, despite our laser-like focus, many of our podcast listeners work in organizations that have a very different view on performance. And many of those organizations reward people for not making waves, rather than rewarding them for making a difference.

No culture is perfect, and performance is always plotted on a continuum. But if you do find yourself on the lower end of the range, working in a low-accountability culture that isn’t focused on performance, it doesn’t mean you should fall back into the comfortable mediocrity of your peers.

In this Q&A episode we address this issue head on, and give you some tactics to use when the culture you’re working in doesn’t support you to do the leadership things that will make the most difference.

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Episode #205 Leading in a Low-Accountability Culture: Q&A with Marty and Em

The link between leadership and performance is the critical piece of the puzzle that seems to have disappeared from the leadership discourse in the last 10 or 15 years. Value creation is the name of the game, and knowing what value means in your context is obviously a prerequisite to being able to deliver it. It’s not just about the money – although, there isn’t an organization on the planet that doesn’t rely on being financially healthy in order to survive and keep delivering on its mission.

Despite our laser-like focus on value, many of our podcast listeners work in organizations that have a very different view on performance. Many of those organizations reward people for not making waves, rather than for making a difference. No culture is perfect and it’s always a continuum. Performance and accountability sits somewhere within a range. And pretty much every organization on the planet could move closer to the high end performance than where they currently sit.

If you do find yourself on the low end of the range, working in the low-accountability culture that isn’t focused on performance, it doesn’t mean you should fall back into the comfortable mediocrity of your peers. While the context of leadership is really different when the culture you’re working within doesn’t support or encourage you to do the things that will make the most difference, you can still be a strong leader.


Not everyone is lucky enough to work in a high performance culture. In fact we’ve had a number of students who have completed Leadership Beyond the Theory, and when it comes to Module 7, which is all about driving accountability, they say “Great! Now I know how to do this, but there’s no way this will be accepted in my workplace.” It’s a bit of a generalization, but these leaders often work in public service, government or small business environments. That’s the case for our podcast listener, Lily, who wrote in with her question:

Marty, I’m a leader in the public sector. Employment is secured and there’s no risk of contracts being terminated. How can I drive performance and make a difference?

This can be a little bit tricky, because we’re talking about a consequence-free environment here. In other words, people won’t face any repercussions for their behavior or performance – and the worst thing is they know it! It doesn’t mean you won’t have really good people in the organization. There are always great people who make a difference. It’s just that in those low-accountability cultures, these people are fewer and farther between than they are in high performance cultures.

When you’re in a low-accountability culture, you’re relying on the motivation, professionalism and commitment of each individual. You don’t have that culture of consistent performance excellence that you’d ideally like to create. So, of course your results are going to be entirely unpredictable, depending purely on who decides to show up on any given day.

It’s really hard to set the minimum acceptable standard for your people, because we know that standard is set by your weakest performer. That’s the person everyone looks at to see how low the ‘low watermark’ actually is, and how low it can go. If that’s a person who does nothing, produces nothing, turns up irregularly, and thumbs their nose at management, then that can be a real culture killer. Everyone else knows that they can cruise along at a fraction of their real capacity and still get paid every month, no matter what. It’s pretty depressing when you think about it.


Of course, there’s always something that can be done. In the absence of any potential consequences for individuals, you’re going to end up with three things:

1. Low accountability, which leads to…

2. Mediocre performance, which leads to…

3. Poor results!

No one really likes working in that type of culture, but they often feel as though they don’t have options. So they’ll tolerate it, they’ll bitch and moan about it around the water cooler, but they won’t do anything to change it.

Accountability is difficult to implement properly if people don’t believe there are any consequences for the choices they make about how they behave and perform. They know they’ll always have a job, but the specter of losing your job isn’t the only thing that motivates people. The threat of termination that Lily referenced is a last resort strategy. It actually reminds me of the quote from the famous gangster Al Capone, he said, “You can get a lot further with a kind word and a gun, than you can with a kind word alone.”

It’s harsh, but it plays on the fact that humans are more motivated by potential loss or negative consequences than they are by positive outcomes and rewards. That’s why the positive motivation you try to create through leadership isn’t actually enough – it’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient, as they say. And it certainly can’t drive performance the same way that people respond when they know that you have a big stick behind your back. I wish that weren’t the case, but it is. They’ve studied this for a long time, and it’s pretty much a fact of life.


On the positive motivation side of things, there is a lot to be said for showing people what it feels like to really achieve and to build their self esteem and confidence. In his sensational book Drive, Dan Pink looks at the MIT incentive study, which was probably the definitive work in this area of motivation. And he found that the three things that motivate people the most in a positive way are autonomy, mastery and purpose. Forget about the consequences for a moment. What you want to do is give people those three things.

Autonomy is the ability for people to make their own decisions and have some control over their destiny. When people come into work in those low-accountability environments, they’re just going to feel as though they have no autonomy. They can’t make any decisions on their own.

Mastery is all about the ability to take on new challenges, and to get really good at them. And that progression really makes you feel good about yourself, your capability and your self-esteem.

Then of course, there’s purpose: Why am I doing this? Why am I here? Am I just here to clock in and clock off and get a paycheck? Or is there something bigger at stake?

In those organizations where you don’t have the specter of consequences, purpose can be a really big motivator. Think about the purpose of not-for-profit and government organizations. They are there to serve the community, and there’s a range of ways that this can happen. If you focus on that, it’s going to give you a really good opportunity to motivate people. You don’t need that proverbial iron fist in the velvet glove.


The autonomy piece really relies on the extent to which you can empower your people, and this is a standard part of leadership in any environment. There are lots of ways to empower people, and they’re open to you as a leader. For example, you can:

  • Set clear objectives

  • Agree on realistic deadlines

  • Resource your people adequately

  • Don’t usurp their decision rights

  • Support them in cross-team skirmishes

  • Be available to help them solve their problems and issues

  • Protect them from organizational politics

Even in the highest performing teams, empowerment has to come before accountability. It’s no different whether you’re working for a Fortune 500 company, or you’re in the public sector or a not-for-profit: it’s the same. Empower people and then hold them to account – and holding to account doesn’t mean that the only remedy for non-performance is termination of someone’s employment. That would be a somewhat cruel and unusual culture.

It can mean that people might lose their right to contribute… or maybe they don’t get allocated the prime projects… or perhaps they don’t receive the development training they’d like. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and the inability to enforce the ultimate solution doesn’t mean you don’t have any tools at all.


The minimum acceptable standard is always set by your weakest performer, and in a low-accountability environment that can be really low. My suggestion would be to push the leaders above you for the green light to at least surgically remove any cancer from your team – that’s the person that we mentioned before, the one who’s just taking advantage of the situation and the whole team is being demoralized as a result. There are a lot of cultural benefits in removing someone who’s holding the whole team back. It completely changes the cultural feel of the team.

The greatest benefit though, doesn’t come from replacing the under-performer – although that’s always a breath of fresh air. It comes from everyone else seeing that you’re prepared to take action in order to improve the performance of the team, and the minimum acceptable standard is lifted accordingly.

Now it becomes the second lowest performer who sets your low watermark, and they start to act differently because they know that they’ve just been put on notice. You’ve demonstrated that you’re prepared to do the hard yards and that the organization is going to support you in doing them. You’re saying, “No tourists.” 

Don’t just assume you aren’t able to remove anyone – every organization has its limits. You may be putting artificial constraints on yourself by assuming that you wouldn’t have support to remove someone. If they were committing fraud, you’d get rid of them. If they were sexually harassing their team members, you’d get rid of them. You just need to find out what the limits of tolerance truly are, and you can work through that with your boss.

If you have one of those chronic non-performers who thinks they’re untouchable, it’s worth the fight to remove them. If you don’t, everyone else on your team suffers. And why would you let the vast majority of good people suffer because you aren’t prepared to deal with a troublemaker who’s making poor choices?

Now, I’d ordinarily say it’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission, and you should just push ahead. But in this low-accountability context, you probably need to make sure your boss is at least neutral. You want to make sure that they don’t stop you or overrule your decisions. They might not actively support you, and that’s okay. They just need to give you enough autonomy to do the things that will make a difference and to keep you engaged in your work as a leader. Without that, every day is going to be a really long day in the office.


As I’ve already mentioned, there are a lot of people out there trying to make a difference and do really great things for the community. But they can be quite hamstrung by a low-performance, low-accountability culture – just like Brad, who wrote:

I work in a government department where the standard is painfully low. Everyone is used to doing things the way they’ve been doing them for years, and it’s driving me mad. I love the work I do, and it makes a big difference to society. I’d prefer to try and raise the standard of the team – if I can – before looking for a job in another company. Do you have any tips on how to do this? 

It mystifies me, to some extent, that anyone would let a culture degrade to the point it has. But it happens, and I think that there’s an element of futility that people feel. It’s like the old, “I’m just a small cog in a big wheel. I can’t actually make a difference.” But as we know, you can always make a difference.

Returning to the motivating forces of autonomy, mastery and purpose, it seems like there’s a really rich vein to tap into here around purpose. If what you do makes a massive difference to those you serve, it’s really worth putting this purpose front and center with your team. The profit motive isn’t there, but the loss motive can be powerful too. A colleague of mine who ran a large not-for-profit organization in Australia used to say, “We’re not for profit. But we’re not for bloody loss either!“ 

If you’re providing a service to people in the community, then every dollar that’s wasted or spent inefficiently is a dollar that’s squandered, and doesn’t help the people you serve. You’re effectively robbing the people that you are there to serve. There’s a lot to be said for perspective. Sometimes, it really is about how you look at these things.


Of course, motivation can be fleeting. Team motivation slumps and you’re left to contemplate the cold, harsh reality of your underperforming organizational culture… In my view, the best companion you have here is a really good grip on reality. This is all about constraints and choices.

We get to make choices every single day about what we do and how we do it. Even the best job in the world has constraints. The question is, can you live with them or not? Your constraint might be:

  • A micromanaging boss

  • A peer who’s actively working the political back-channels to try and bring you down

  • A lack of appropriate resources to deliver what you’ve been asked to deliver

  • A lack of the types of assets that you really need to compete effectively in your market

  • A poor strategy that makes it difficult for you to see a path to future profitability

  • A lack of advancement opportunities that match your levels of ambition

  • A constraint on the quality of people you can entice to come and work for you in your industry and location

Once you’ve identified the constraints that are causing you grief, don’t feel as though you’re trapped by them. Instead, ask yourself this really simple question: Am I prepared to live within these constraints or aren’t I? 

Now, if you’re prepared to live within the constraints, then at least you’ve made a conscious choice backed by your own experience and judgment. In this scenario, just get on with it. Do the very best you can while working within the constraints that simply come with the territory. These constraints are just a cold, hard fact of the organization you’re in, so don’t agonize over them, don’t wring your hands, and don’t feel as though you’re trapped.

On the other hand, if you’re not prepared to live within those constraints, then vote with your feet. It’s the only answer. If you don’t accept the constraints and put them behind you, it’ll drive you crazy eventually. Your own work performance will slip, you’ll lose your confidence, and you’ll be absolutely miserable every day you turn up. So you’re much better cutting your losses and heading to greener pastures.

If you do decide to tough it out, as long as you’re in the role, you have to try everything within your power to make a difference. It’s what leaders do. But lots of leaders just wave the white flag and they settle back into complacency with everyone else. You might instead decide to have a chat with your boss about increasing the accountability culture within your team, and make sure they’ve at least got your back with some of the tough calls that you want to make. Now, don’t go tell your boss they’re a sh!t leader – they probably already know that deep down.

If you want to talk to your boss a good way to couch it is by highlighting the value leakage. For example, you could say something like:

“Hey Ted, I know you’re committed to what we do here. I can see some areas for improvement though, which I think will really lift our ability to serve our community. It means I’m going to have to raise the standard in my team, and ask more from them in terms of their current performance. Now, I can’t do this without your support because some of the team won’t like it. But if we don’t improve, we’re effectively robbing our customers of opportunities, and I know you wouldn’t want that.”

Always focus on the desirable outcome, and the end customer (who we mustn’t forget is the reason we’re employed in the first place).


Changing a whole organization’s culture from low to high accountability is something that really has to happen from the very top, and it’s not a fast process. This can be pretty overwhelming for some leaders, and it can really make them feel like that little cog in a massive wheel.

Your focus should be to get your team on board, and to buck the trend that they’re seeing all around them. But if there are under-performers everywhere else, how are they going to be motivated to reach the goals that you want to set for them?

The reality is, if it doesn’t come from the top, and with a deep commitment and a serious appetite to drive change, then the inertia of the organization is just going to be overwhelming. Nothing’s going to happen. There are lots of CEOs who walk around like they’re wearing the Emperor’s new clothes, kidding themselves that things are changing when everyone can see that they’re not.

It’s been my experience that there just aren’t that many CEOs who have that burning desire to do whatever it takes in the people and culture space. They’ll do whatever it takes in lots of areas of business, but somehow they shy away from some of the more obvious cultural reform initiatives. Or they’ll initiate a program and then pay lip service to it. Or they’ll put a program in place and then not hold their leaders to account for implementing it.

So, if you do manage to find yourself in an organization where the CEO has a genuine appetite for improving people, culture and performance, you have to capitalize on that opportunity. If you don’t have the support of an organizational drive for improvement in team performance, then my view is that you have to do everything possible with the resources you do control and influence… and that’s your own team. Understand the constraints, recognise the cold hard facts, and just put your head down to do everything within your power to make your team better within the parameters you’ve been given.

Lots of people like to think they work in a high accountability, high performance environment, but they actually don’t. More often than not, that impression comes from being too insular and not realizing what goes on in the rest of the world. It’s no more than a subtle form of believing your own bullsh!t.


  • Ep. #19: Execution for Results – Listen Here

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