Do Leaders Sabotage Accountability?

Q: I have recently attended a number of webinars and a workshop on accountability. Some of the training touched on the importance of holding clear and concise “accountability conversations” to ensure commitment and follow-through to achieve results. I understand how important it would be in holding these types of conversations, but I wondered if there are behaviors that leaders might engage in which undermine the accountability they are trying to instill in others. Can leaders sabotage their efforts to increase the accountability of those who work for them?


A: Authentic leadership requires both talk and walk. A leader who is unaware may walk in a way that undermines his or her talk. Sometimes leaders will take on a specific role for reasons known only to them. The role of a specific behavior may diminish or undermine an individual’s desire to be accountable. Over the years I have identified six specific roles—there may very well be others—which impact accountability.


1. The Entitler. This leader believes he or she has to reward employees for everything they do. This behavior causes the employees to develop a sense of entitlement, and they become what I call “coin-operated” employees. They come to expect and even demand reward for specific performance—especially for performance that requires them to take extra initiative. This leader’s behavior not only creates the expectation of reward, but tends to destroy individual initiative and responsibility.


Rather than be an Entitler, an effective leader should become a Motivator. Motivators get to know their employees. They look to identify personal values that inspire and motivate individuals to expand their capacity to perform at a higher level.


2. The Justifier. This leader accepts the stories or excuses that an individual offers to explain their lack of accountability. The Justifier might say, “Oh, I can understand how that might happen. It’s okay. Let’s talk about what we should do now.” Please note: surprises do happen and priorities can certainly change, and expectations and requirements often need to accommodate those situations. But a leader who continually validates stories or excuses for non-performance sends the message that as long as you have a great story, your lack of accountability is acceptable. In essence, the Justifier enables his or her people to not keep their commitments.


Rather than be a Justifier, the leader should take steps to be an excellent Strategizer or planner. A Strategizer explores in detail what is required to complete a particular task on time while meeting the required parameters for excellence. Poor planning usually leads to poor results.


3. The Rescuer. This leader actually does the employee’s work. This often happens with newly-promoted leaders who are more comfortable doing their old job than learning how to lead. Or perhaps the Rescuer doubts that the individual can even do the job, so they run to the rescue and do the task for them. This behavior leads to a learned helplessness on the part of the employee. The leader’s behavior sends the message that you do not have to be competent to do your job. The employees learn that they don’t have to be accountable because someone will bail them out.


Instead of being Rescuers, leaders need to learn how to be Facilitators. Facilitators know how to move things along. They know how to use questions to discover where the employee may lack the ability to do the job, and they know how to use that information to determine a course of action that will help employees acquire necessary skills and responsibilities for their job functions.


4. The Perfector. This leader is never satisfied because nothing is ever quite good enough. These leaders are perfectionists. This behavior can often be accompanied by constant criticism of the individuals whose performance is subpar, and it turns employees into pleasers, or “yes people,” who spend their time trying to guess what the leader really wants. The Perfector also creates a sense of learned hopelessness in those who come to expect their best efforts to be rejected. Accountability is replaced by apathy when hard work is consistently misdirected or deemed unacceptable.


Leaders who engage in Perfector behavior should look seriously at becoming Clarifiers. Clarifiers think about their own thoughts. They are very clear about what “perfect” and “acceptable” look like, and they make a great effort to determine whether their people have understood these conditions clearly. When people have a clear picture of what or “perfect” or “right” looks like, they are far more likely to perform to that level and meet the leader’s expectations.


5. The Blamer. I once had a manager who was a Blamer. If I did what he asked and things didn’t turn out well, he blamed me. If I did not do what he asked, no matter how things turned out, he blamed me. He was definitely a “no-fault” leader; his behavior created major defensiveness in everyone who worked for and around him. People became far more interested in self-preservation than in expending their discretionary effort. In my experience, his behavior was far more effective in creating a lack of accountability than in creating any desire to do the work right.


This leader needed to learn to be a Praiser. Praisers notice behaviors that contribute to superior performance, and they acknowledge individual contribution. When a task doesn’t yield the desired results, a Praiser will sit down with the employee and review processes and procedures to identify where things fell apart. Then he or she makes suggestions or implements changes that will improve performance and results. They celebrate success and develop skills in others to overcome deficiencies. A Praiser focuses on process and avoids punishing people.


6. The Micromanager. This leadership role is about controlling exactly what an employee does and controlling accountability for the work. Micromanagement usually leaves an employee feeling angry, frustrated, demoralized, and searching for another job. Micromanaging behavior sends the message, “I really don’t trust you to do your job!”


Rather than being a Micromanager, a leader should adopt the role of a Truster. A Truster is someone who allows an employee the autonomy to do the job and to learn and grow from his or her efforts. Leaders who demonstrate trust go out of their way to support and assist individual to do their jobs and allow them to be accountable for their results.


Helping individuals, teams, and work groups to be responsible and accountable for their results is the key to productive and profitable work. To improve accountability, effective leaders evaluate how their talk matches their walk and understand how their behavior contributes to or detracts from the results they are trying to achieve.

Thanks for asking!


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