The distinction between trust and accountability

Building them both is an integral part of team dynamics in your organization.

Steffan Surdek
April 5, 2021

In the past year, I ran many workshops around the five dysfunctions of a team with my clients. What I love about doing it so often is that I get new insights on the material each time I run it with a different team.

The interesting thing is that different teams have different challenges. Yes, some common ones come up every time, but it feels like the discussions or the angle on them is different.

In this article, I wanted to share an insight I picked up in my most recent workshop. Let's talk about the distinction between trust and accountability.

What is trust?

When asking people about their definition of trust, the answers often revolve around dependability. Many people equate trust to "someone I can rely on" or "someone who keeps their promises". The more often the person delivers on either of these, the more worthy they become of receiving trust.

This creates a very binary form of trust where you either trust someone or you do not. I spoke about this when I explored the distinction between trust and merit.

In the context of the five dysfunctions of a team, we talk about vulnerability-based trust. This means the ability to make yourself open and vulnerable with your team. As you can see in the graphic below, it is the foundation for everything else.

Vulnerability here can be about different things. For example, can you talk about your weaknesses with your team? Can you ask for help or say you do not know something? Can you talk about how stuff going on at home is impacting you at work?

Five Dysfunctions Picture

What is accountability?

People often see accountability as calling others out on their mistakes. It is the blame game we can see in many organizations. Often, people hold back on holding others accountable. They either feel illegitimate or uncomfortable calling out their colleagues. Instead, they expect their managers to do it for them.

In the context of the five dysfunctions, there are a couple of ways to see this. It can be about making sure the team follows through on their group commitments for example. It can also be about bringing up when people are not meeting the team performance standards.

An evolution of this is also seeing accountability as a way to support your colleagues. Imagine someone on your team wants to communicate in a more concise way. Accountability could be naming it in the moment when the person is over explaining. You could also ask them to try again or give them an example of a different way to express themselves.

Doing this makes accountability more constructive and turns it into a shared commitment to support each other.

The 5 millimeter distinction between the two

Back to the original conversation about the distinction between the two. When trust is about dependability, what you are really talking about is accountability.

Without trust, the person deemed unworthy cannot be vulnerable with their colleague. There is no vulnerability-based trust so there cannot be any accountability. Imagine having a conversation like this with a colleague:

  • You: "I'm trying to do this task, can you help me?"
  • Colleague: "Why are you asking me this again? I explained this to you five times already! Why don't you get it yet?"

If you were the person asking for help, how would you feel after getting that answer? Would you want to ask for help again? Would you make yourself vulnerable in any way to your colleague?


As humans, we have a tendency to make a very fundamental attribution error. Generally speaking, we tend to wrongly assume that the negative behaviours of others are due to their character. We assume that others do bad things because they have a predisposition to do so. When we look at our own negative behaviours though, we attribute those to our environment. We assume we did a bad thing because of the situation we were in at the time, or because we had no other choice.

On the other hand, when we look at others' success, we tend to attribute that to their environments. We believe they were lucky or had some good fortune. When it comes to our own success though, it is because of our character or because we are talented.

This attribution error also impacts how you may see trust and accountability. When you become more aware of yourself though, you can start changing this.

Remember that trust is part of the foundation for accountability. Can your colleagues or employees be transparent with you about why they did not do something? How would you react if they told you they do not know how to do what you asked of them? How safe is it for them to share the real reason they did not do something?

Knowing you can only control your 50% of a conversation, what does it actually look like and what does your 50% create for others?

How do you create safety and trust within your team to allow everyone to be vulnerable? How can you transform accountability into support to reach a common goal?