Accountability Language

by Michael C Kelly, MA

Do you remember the school-yard bully, skilled at holding their vicitms on the ground or against a wall? Perhaps they would hold them for extended periods, until they gave up their lunch money, or in glimpses of psychopathic fervour, just to watch them squirm. For me, experiences like this put the words "bully" and "hold" in a common, violence-underscoring language. 

Bullying persists in our workplaces, so much so many governments now identify it as a health and safety concern. Legislation like Ontario's Bill 168 now guards against the crutial elements of the bully, including their violence and harassment. 

Holding persists too, especially in our organizational and political language. A recent Harvard Business Review blog described how the best teams "hold themselves accountable.” (1) We regularly say we will hold our executives, staff, suppliers and customers accountable. Politicians bully their constituants by regularly including the word in their negative compaign ads.

I get that we use the term to underscore our need for transparency, to ensure organizational survival, to expose cheats and frauds, and to feed political lusts, but it's hard not to see the bully in the word, to connect it to violence, even if it’s used as a common expression.

So, perhaps we might consider lending meaning to work lives by bringing cognitive and physical security to our workplaces. Perhaps we could turn the heat down on violent language by simply not using the word 'hold.' 

Instead of "holding" someone accountable, we might "call" them to account. Rather than describe an enlightened team as one "holding" itself accountable, we might acknowledge its willingness to "call" itself to account.

It's a small but positive change. And who knows, the bully’s pressures might disappear, allowing the non-bullies to focus on what counts - getting things done and living their lives. 



  1. See “The Best Teams Hold Themselves Accountable” by Joseph Grenny in Harvard Business Review, May 30, 2014. [This, by the way, is an excellent blog article on how teams successfully, ummm, “call” themselves to account.]
© 2011  Michael C Kelly