During client keynotes and workshops over the last couple of months, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the relationship between accountability, Below the Surface Leadership, and psychological safety. Psychological safety is one of the three pillars of Below the Surface Leadership. When I propose that you can’t achieve true psychological safety (or a culture of belonging) without taking a hard look at your most prominent organizational structures and systems, some leaders resist that idea.

These are the questions consistently coming up in our conversations:

If you’re psychologically “safe,” can you still have difficult performance management conversations?

If you focus on psychological safety, can you still hold teams accountable?

Can you be empathetic and disagree at the same time?

Are empathy and directness in conflict with each other?

Is Below the Surface Leadership “too nice?”

The overarching question is: Can you do all of these things while still holding people accountable and building an effective team? The doubt here can be real, but the answer is a resounding yes!

What’s Accountability, Anyway?

I’ve noticed that many people associate accountability with the dominant leadership standard. You have to be a “hard ass” or “crack the whip.” As one of my friends recently shared, her boss held her accountable with an ominous warning that “there would be consequences.” We have a cultural assumption that honesty has to be brutal: how many times have you heard someone follow up a rude remark with “I’m just being honest?” Many of us have similar ideas about accountability: you have to be authoritarian and punish those who don’t achieve. But that’s not what accountability is.

Generally speaking, accountability is taking responsibility for one’s actions. It’s taking ownership of what you say and what you do. You also take ownership when you miss the mark or come up short of achieving your goals. Based on the client questions I mentioned, I can see that there’s a disconnect between what accountability is, what it looks like, and how to achieve it.

In her book Supportive Accountability, Sylvia Melena discusses this very topic. I particularly love how her definition goes against the dominant leadership standard:

“Supportive accountability embodies a high level of supportiveness complemented by a high level of accountability. Effective leaders provide the right amount of support and accountability based on each situation. When performance isn’t quite up to par, they don’t look for a person to blame, but rather seek to uncover the underlying causes and to provide the support necessary for success.”

Regarding accountability, in my Corporate HR days, I’ve personally used the following approaches during performance management conversations with employees that I was being pressured to let go:

  • In a curious way, I explored if they really want to be at the organization
  • We brainstormed options, exploring if they would rather stay or go
  • I asked for their input on what they could do to turn it around
  • I preserved their dignity, making sure not to present it as an ultimatum like I’m going to “pull the plug”
  • I provided support during and after the entire process

Through this approach, some of the employees I spoke to made the choice to separate and leave. Others felt empowered to find a better situation more suited to their skills and interests.

Below the Surface Leaders acknowledge the realities of serious issues at hand in terms that don’t automatically assign blame or put the employee at fault. In surface-level performance conversations, there’s no room to hear out the employee’s entire point of view and get a mutual understanding of what’s going on. At this stage, it’s often “too late,” and the employee is likely to walk away feeling like they didn’t get a chance to make it right. These interactions can lead to anxiety, bitterness, and resentment on both sides.

What’s Psychological Safety?

The same leaders who believe in tough-love accountability usually have some misunderstandings about what psychological safety is as well. If accountability must be aggressive or threatening to be effective, it follows that psychological safety must mean “being nice” or “coddling” employees. Again, that’s a surface-level view that doesn’t get to the real truth.

Let’s get to a clearer definition of what psychological safety really is. In her book The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmondson writes:

“Psychological safety is…a climate in which people are comfortable expressing themselves. They are confident that they can speak up and won’t be humiliated, ignored, or blamed. When a work environment has reasonably high psychological safety, good things can happen: mistakes are reported quickly so that prompt corrective action can be taken, seamless coordination across groups or departments is enabled, and potentially game-changing ideas for innovation are shared.”

Based on this definition, psychological safety is more of a continuum than an absolute: it’s not something that you either have or you don’t, it fluctuates. That also means you have to work to maintain it. I draw from Amy Edmondson’s scholarship in the sections of my book Leading Below the Surface that touch on psychological safety.

Here are some behaviors that indicate your work environment’s level of psychological safety:

Are Employees Less Accountable in a Psychologically Safe Culture?

This has been the biggest question on people’s minds, but before I answer that, let’s go back to the basics. Sylvia Melena’s theory of supportive accountability suggests that we avoid assigning blame long enough to explore underlying causes and then provide the support employees need to get back on track. This takes fear and threats out of the equation without eliminating personal responsibility. If the goal of accountability is to get employees to take ownership of their actions, then psychological safety is actually a more effective approach than negative reinforcement.

How to Hold Others Accountable as a Below the Surface Leader

Getting below the surface to talk about your employees’ perspectives, feelings, and personal challenges incrementally opens up space for supportive accountability. You don’t have to agree with each other, but practicing empathy helps you and others feel safe enough to express your ideas. A simple way to reframe your approach to critical feedback is to replace criticism with curiosity. You build trust so that when you provide constructive feedback, it’s authentic. It’s a lot harder than following your gut reaction to “lay down the law,” but it pays off with better relationships and more honesty.

Remember that people won’t feel safe if you’re not giving them critical feedback. They might worry that you’re holding something back or that you don’t care about their growth. Start by noticing how mistakes are treated in your organization. Are employees expected to make mistakes, or do you expect perfection? Are small mistakes ever blown out of proportion? Next time an employee messes up, take a moment to check in and find out what happened—with curiosity. Acknowledge any feelings they share with you and give them some fast feedback while you’re on the subject.

It takes time to make these behavioral changes, and the first step is raising your awareness. You’re on the right track!