One of the top issues operational leaders seek my help with is getting their people to take on more accountability. Many leaders I speak to are simply not fulfilling their potential because they are working one level or more below their job role – they are filling the accountability gaps as they can’t get people to step up.
Is this because they have employed people who can’t or won’t do their jobs, or is something else going on? In my experience, leaders can often be their own worst enemies when it comes to getting their team members to take accountability. Here, I explain why, and what you can do about it.
But first, let’s take a look at what taking accountability actually means.
In the workplace, taking accountability is often used interchangeably with phrases like taking ownership and taking responsibility. A good definition of accountability is:
“The quality or state of being accountable; an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions.”  a
In its broadest sense, this means making good on any commitments that have been made and doing your best to ensure things don’t go wrong. Sounds simple, right? Yet why is it so difficult to achieve? In my experience, leaders can often be their own worst enemies when it comes to getting their team members to take accountability. Let me give you three quite different, but equally damaging examples of how I’ve seen this unfold:
1. The leader is unclear
about what is required
In one team I worked with, the leader was frustrated because his team kept coming to him to check things before acting. He wanted people to take accountability and drive things forward on their own. When I spoke to the team, I discovered their approach was a product of their leader’s behaviour. Here’s why:
When delegating work, the leader would give his team a very broad and unspecific outline of what was required. When they presented the results, he was critical and frequently changed his expectations. From the team’s perspective, the goal posts were constantly being shifted. Unsurprisingly, they reverted to checking in with the leader before moving forward to avoid criticism or waste time working on the wrong things.
What to do
To tackle this, I did a couple of specific things with the leader to improve his approach:
Before delegating tasks, I asked him to spend time to really clarify his own expectations about the outcome. If you are not clear about your own expectations, then your team won’t be either.
Next, I asked him to plan team briefing sessions, to give them a clear overview of the task and to ensure that goals, boundaries, and expectations were set out. As part of this process, it is also important to check for understanding as you go and allow plenty of opportunities to ask questions.
CommsMasters Tip: Make sure you are clear about the outcome you seek and your expectations around any criteria that must be met in delivering these.
2. The goal or task is unmanageable
In this organisation, the CEO and Directors were frustrated. Why? They had asked the senior leadership team (a large group of 30 people), to develop plans for eight major projects. Six months later, no progress had been made, so they got in touch with CommsMasters.
Working with the senior leaders, I was able to identify the root of the problem. They had been set a goal which was unmanageable. Despite not having specific expertise in the project area(s), they had been asked to form project teams and move them all forward. This work was in addition to their over-stretched day jobs. Conflict ensued as people argued over who would lead each project, and who would be left with the less palatable ones. The sheer size of the leadership team was also causing gridlock. It was much too large to facilitate effective decision-making or resolve conflict.
What to do
In this example, the first action I took was to work with the CEO and Directors to prioritise the projects and establish clear goals for each one. By agreeing this upfront, it was thenpossible to facilitate the senior leadership team’s decision-making about who should work on which project and how best to deliver them. Starting with the highest priority projects, we identified how much work was required, and who had the necessary capacity to lead them
CommsMasters Tip: Don’t dump unformed projects on a group and expect them to move forward. For effective group decision-making, 6 to 8 individuals are the optimum number. Where groups are larger, the ability to resolve differences and achieve consensus becomes much more problematic.
3. The leader doesn’t leave space for people to take accountability
I often find myself asking leaders to just get out of the way! They are simply too involved with their team, and never allow them space or time to take accountability for themselves. The leader is present in every team meeting and micromanages.
In a recent example, the CEO was frustrated at what he perceived was his senior team’s lack of ability to take ownership and make decisions. He felt he was genuinely open to ideas and listened to people attentively. The problem was the CEO’s self-awareness – he was far less open than he believed. If ideas didn’t fit with his own views, he dismissed them. He didn’t do so with an outright ‘No’ – instead, he’d question his team on their proposals, using a line of questioning that clearly indicated if the idea was okay – or not. In senior team meetings, people second-guessed what he wanted. They would check in with him rather than having discussions amongst themselves and coming to decisions based on their own views.
What to do
To resolve this, the first step was to encourage the senior team to meet without the CEO. The second was to ask the CEO to be genuinely open about accepting decisions that didn’t align with his own thinking. He said he was confident in his team’s ability – he needed to support this through concrete actions.
CommsMasters Tip: Give your team space to meet without you. Team behaviour changes, even when the most open of leaders are in the room. Then, ask yourself how open you really are when people make proposals that conflict with the actions you want. You may find you are a bit too quick to knock them down.
If you can put the advice outlined here into action, you’ll be able to reap the rewards of increased accountability, not only in your team but across your organisation too. Performance will improve; resources will be better allocated as people no longer have to second-guess. And you’ll free up time to focus on strategic activities rather than getting caught up in operational matters.
 Merriam-Webster definition of accountability. Available at: www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/accountability