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The 5 Things No One Told You About Accountability in Leadership

Accountability is increasingly one of the most coveted attributes leaders want from their employees, and employees want from their leaders. With that aspiration, you would think that we would find accountable leaders and team members evident throughout our professional career, however research and most of our personal experience would indicate this is far from the case. The gap in this area has caused the world economic forum to dedicate special focus on the topic of accountability and trust in 2021 as shifting norms in business and politics in this area undermine the very basic foundations of our global economy. On our teams we may be concerned with more mundane outcomes like delivering next quarter’s sales target, customer experience improvement mandate or efficiency improvements; and we know that generating high levels of accountability amongst team members makes a monumental impact on those outcomes as well.

As Leaders we play a pivotal role in influencing individual performance and accountability through our words and actions, as well as modeling personal accountability is the foundation of seeing what can occur in those we lead. Research shows that managers also play a key role in driving employee engagement and overall employee commitment to organizational goals. According to research by Gallup, managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement levels, impacting overall employee productivity as well as how individuals behave.

If you’re a leader and find your employees struggling with following through on accountabilities it may be due to one of these reasons.


Accountability starts with how I lead

An employee’s failure to fulfill their responsibilities is rarely a result of them waking up in the morning and saying, “I think that today I’ll ignore my commitments. I consciously chose not to do what I said I would do and will in fact demonstrate great irresponsibility.” Employees want to excel in their roles, but no matter how driven they are, their ability to meet their accountabilities has a direct correlation to the skills of their leader.

In one study they found that 84% of employees surveyed said the way leaders behave is the single most important factor influencing accountability in their organizations. Creating and maintaining clarity of objectives and priorities in a changing world being paramount. However, in the same survey, it was found that only 15% of leaders have successfully defined and broadly communicated their key results. Even fewer have created a commonly understood team action plan and facilitated dialogue to build understanding around the interdependencies that must be managed for success. So how is an employee to know what they’re working towards or should be accountable for? Often times in today’s fast paced environment formal objectives setting & performance review processes that once served (not that well) to facilitate accountability now waste time and demotivate all involved. Actively managing alignment and accountability is the only way competitive organizations keep up.

These effective leadership behaviors are work skills as complex as any technical skills found in the modern workplace. However, in a study by CareerBuilder it was found that a shocking 58% of managers said they did not receive any management training. In most organizations, employees are promoted into a management role because they’re great in their functional role, not because they are good at coaching and leading those around them. Without the opportunity to learn and develop leadership skills it cannot come as a surprise that there are leaders who are not trained on how to lead and drive accountability in their teams.

Accountability is critical to team and organizational success. Learn how to  build a culture of accountability in this guide.

Dynamic clarity and the communication skills required to maintain it are the foundation to begin the accountability conversation.

Communication is a core set of leadership skills (listening, question asking, story telling, presenting, etc.) that are becoming increasingly important in the modern work environment. While most of us are drowning in information, effective leaders have mastered the ability to create compelling clarity for those they lead. However, it was found that 57% of employees report not being given clear direction, and as many as 69% of managers are not comfortable communicating with their employees. Leaders who are falling short on communicating clearly, or communicating at all, will have a negative impact on accountability, motivation, and productivity of their teams.

As a leader, you must ensure clarity between all involved and that starts with clear communication. It is one thing to know what needs to happen and the method for getting it done. It is quite another to ensure others are on the same page and have the same understanding. There must be enough detail so the individual receiving the assignment has the same picture of what will be achieved and the way it will be achieved as the leader who is giving the assignment.

Clear, consistent, and frequent communication is key to ensuring clarity around accountabilities.  Frequent two-way conversation keeps employees on track, and done properly, creates ownership for the outcome, thus reducing the chance of finger-pointing for things being undone or implemented incorrectly.


Accountability will Never Happen if Your Employees Passively Agree

Passive agreement, nodding or saying nothing in the meeting and then trashing the idea in the hall, is one of the most toxic forces in teams and organizations. Leaders who create space for individuals and teams to have a healthy and informed debate realize that this process is the most effective ways for individuals to internalize the importance of the commitment and become clearer and more aligned on how to achieve it.

Accountability is rarely the outcome when leaders merely assign results beyond the normal tasks of the job. Imposing your ideas of what should be completed and how to do so, without agreement from the individual charged with achieving it, may lead to that person acquiescing to deliver it, even if they don’t believe it is practical or worth the effort or they don’t feel capable of achieving it. The more senior you are as a leader the more intentional you must be around inviting dialogue. Simply assigning a mandate to someone and then walking away assuming that mandate will be fulfilled, is unlikely to result in high levels of accountability. 

Defining together the measures that will be used to achieve success or failure, and the logical “checkpoints” to track progress, are a great way to avoid passive agreement. Giving your team the freedom to recommend checkpoints and measures forces them to think through and internalize the path to success creating both clarity and ownership.


Encourage initiative and empower action

A study conducted by SHRM has found that 70% of employees ranked being empowered to take action at work when a problem or opportunity arose as an important element of their personal engagement. Empowered individuals are motivated and feel accountable for their roles in their organization’s success. They value the opportunity to step up and take success into their own hands. There is a reasonable amount of freedom given to them by their leaders, who allow them to manage the execution of their responsibilities as they see fit. They bring a high degree of competence and discretion to the task at hand, which in turn gives them the ability to maintain a high standard of performance excellence.

Accountability and empowerment go hand in hand. Individuals can only be accountable when they understand their level of autonomy. Understanding relevant boundaries, such as how much money they can spend, what resources they can pull in, or who they need to notify at various milestones along the way, empowers them to be able to make decisions and own the outcomes. Without sufficient empowerment, employees may feel stifled or unclear on just how far they can go to accomplish their goals. 


Coaching people to their potential

Over the years of running a simple exercise in my training sessions where people rate what percentage of their potential to contribute to their organization would actually be received; I have become convinced that most organizations get less than half of what is possible out of their people.

This leads to the apathy and disengagement that is epidemic in most workplaces. There is a massive body of research that confirms that to a point, people rise to the expectations you have for them given enough time and support.

In the virtual working world filled with zoom calls and ad hoc teams most employees are starving for high quality and contextually relevant feedback and coaching input from those around them. Reframing perspectives, providing additional context, relating from your experience are so often undervalued leadership tasks that so often happen inadvertently when triggered by some external prompt.

Effectively coaching others requires taking an approach that ensures the input will be heard, accepted, and acted upon. Great coaches take the time to connect with the people they’re coaching, carefully observe their behavior, and offer new ideas that help individuals make the leap from good to great. Coaching must always be delivered in the right context and at the right time. If it’s not, the coaching is likely to be rejected or ignored. 



There is no question that the success of any organization is heavily dependent on the quality and impact of its leadership. And we’re not just talking about those in the C-suite. Every leader in every department has an impact on those they lead, whether it’s for the good or the bad. Leaders have the most direct impact on the day-to-day lives of employees and their roles within the organization. 

Great leaders create accountable employees and accountable employees have their commitments at the forefront of their minds and are keenly aware of how their day-to-day actions and behaviors contribute to the organization’s overall success. When individuals are held accountable for their roles in the organization, they are in control and responsible for their own success, leading to higher levels of effort and engagement, which the organization ultimately benefits from.


Download Guide: The Guide to Accountability: Delivering What You Promise and Getting Your Team to Do the Same

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Chris holds an MBA from Cornell-Queens Executive MBA Program. From 2006-2014, he was the Executive Director and COO of Muskoka Woods Sports Resort. He is now the Executive Vice President Marketing and Business Development at Eagle’s Flight. His diverse executive background managing portfolios include operations, sales and marketing, finance, fundraising and Human Resources. Eagle’s Flight benefits from Chris’ experience and expertise in leading, facilitating and consulting for client executive teams, specifically in the development of their strategic vision and plan.

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Founded in 1988, Eagle's Flight has earned its reputation as a global leader in the development and delivery of business-relevant, experiential learning programs that achieve specific training objectives and lasting behavior changes.

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