If you want people to take accountability – get out of the way!

By Heather Campbell

I recently went on a touring holiday with a friend where I did most of the driving. On the first day, I discovered that this particular friend is a real back-seat driver – and doesn’t even realise it! From which route to take, to the speed we were going, when to indicate or switch lanes, I found myself waiting for comments about what I was doing. As a result, I found myself double- checking and second-guessing everything, even though I am a confident driver! Ultimately, this is a good friend and we were able to joke about what was happening.

This experience got me thinking, though, about the similarities that exist between leaders and the people they manage. So often, leaders are so busy correcting every little thing – even those things that don’t need corrected – that people start to double-check and second-guess. And, from the leader’s perspective, this feels like lack of accountability on the team member’s part.

Quite simply, the wrong leadership behaviours stop people from taking accountability, when leaders want the opposite to happen! I have seen many examples where leaders inadvertently block people from being accountable. Often, these leaders lack self-awareness, so have no idea how controlling they are, and the impact this is having on those around them.

Here I outline five ways leaders prevent people from taking accountability, and some changes you can make to relinquish control and empower people to step up.

Five ways leaders block accountability

1. They are everywhere

Some leaders make it their business to attend every single meeting, from executive meetings down to team meetings and client meetings. They are everywhere, when they don’t need to be! Although you may feel the need to be closely involved – doing this stifles people.

What to do differently

Try letting the team hold some meetings without you. If you need to, give them broad parameters to work towards, but remember that teams at a senior level are more than capable of working out what they need to do and how best to achieve it. If ‘the boss’ is at a meeting, the meeting too easily becomes about their personal agenda and the issues that are important to them. Remove the leader from the room, and a completely different dynamic is created. People have the space to take accountability.

2. Their body language is a dead giveaway

Our body language provides subtle evidence about what we are thinking. Are you the boss that leans forward if you are engaged and interested in something, but leans back when you are uninterested? Do you perhaps fidget, stifle a yawn or tap your pen if you are beginning to get bored? Your body language provides clues as to how you are thinking, and signals this to those around you – with negative consequences.

What to do differently

Our body language is a window to our thoughts and opinions. What we think drives how we feel. How we feel drives how we behave. If you are feeling negative about something, your body language will often reflect it. In meetings and conversations, try to resist the temptation to form an opinion straight away – often there’s no need to decide if you agree or disagree. Instead, shift your approach to one of exploration and learning rather than judgement. Let people know you want to learn and understand more about what they are working on. Approaching situations from the perspective of ‘I want to know more’ rather than ‘Do I agree with this?’ will fundamentally change your body language and help put people at ease.

3. They create alliances

Leaders often have a ‘preferred person’ or confidant whose view gets more airtime or a more positive response than others. Be on the lookout for favouritism. Ask yourself: ‘Do I actively seek the opinions of some people and not others?’ This creates an environment where people who are not part of the leader’s preferred group are prevented from achieving their full potential.

What to do differently

Be ready to consciously notice what you are doing. This comes back to self-awareness. For some, this might require a bit of soul searching and being really honest with yourself about how you are behaving, and why. Although we all have people we listen to and respect more than others, leaders cannot afford to have favourites. For accountability to flourish, people need to see that they are respected equally.

4. Their minds are already made up

We’ve all been in meetings where it’s blatantly obvious that the leader has already made up their mind about something, but they still open up the conversation under the pretence of allowing a full discussion and debate on the issue. This game of allowing everyone to talk about an issue when you’ve already made up your mind is one which doesn’t foster accountability – instead it breeds ‘groupthink’ – where a group of people refrain from expressing doubts and judgments or disagreeing with the consensus in the interests of making a group decision.[1]

What to do differently

An easy way to challenge yourself to approach this differently is to be upfront from the start about what your view is, or what course of action you think would work. Share it, and ask people for their views about your suggestion. Invite challenge and debate, and really listen to viewpoints that don’t chime with your own.

[1] What is Groupthink? Psychology Today. Available at: www.psychologytoday.com/gb/basics/groupthink

5. They don’t let people decide the what or the how

When there’s a problem to be solved, many leaders take control over what needs to happen, and specifically how the problem will be tackled. However, it’s far more productive for the leader to outline the why – why a different approach is needed. Specifying what and how removes control and choice from the equation – there is no accountability for people to solve the problem on their own.

What to do differently

If there’s a problem that needs to be tackled, don’t dictate the what and the how. Insteadgive people the bigger picture – the why of the problem they need to solve. Don’t take over the detail of how it will be done.


Good leaders should always consider the inadvertent impact they have on others, and how their behaviour might be undermining accountability, when that’s the very thing we seek to build in our teams. It is unlikely to be your intention to undermine accountability, but as we’ve seen, the impact can be very damaging for individuals and teams that you manage. Leaders need to build their capacity for self-awareness. We can never afford to stop looking at ourselves to identify whether our behaviour is the root cause of problems in our organisations.

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