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Leadership Thought #471 – 4 Reasons Why Accountability Is An Issue

March 3, 2015

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About every week I meet with a client who bemoans the lack of accountability in their work environment.  My first response is always, “we are what we tolerate.” However, I then walk them through the four reasons (in my experience) why things don’t get done:

  1. There is a lack of clarity about what needs to be done.
  2. The person in question doesn’t know how to do what you are asking them to do.
  3. They already have too much on their plate and need help prioritizing their workload.
  4. They don’t buy into the assignment, to begin with.


First, we have all been there.  We delegate something to a direct report and even though we can see it in their eyes and body language they don’t fully get what we are saying. However, we plow forward anyway.  Sometimes the person will even be saying “yes” as their head is nodding no.  They don’t want to look stupid or unprofessional so instead of asking for further clarification they just gloss over their confusion and hope they get enough of the gist of your request to make reasonable progress.  Our job as leaders is to push back on this dynamic and make sure what we are delegating is crystal clear before exiting the conversation.  Always ask them to repeat the request to make sure the two of you are on the same page.

Second, similar to the previous point, employees tend to not want to look ignorant to their supervisors so they will often agree to something they have no idea how to get done.  Once again, they practice a strategy of hoping that they can somehow figure out how to execute the request.  So much time is wasted by people attempting to do things they do not know how to do.  Once again, our job as leaders is to ask them if they feel confident that they have the knowledge and experience to get the task done or do they need help figuring it out.  Of course, a boss needs to make it okay for people to admit their gaps in capabilities if this conversation is ever to take place constructively.

Third, the burden of high performance for an individual in most organizations is that if you have a reputation for getting things done more work ends up on your plate.  “Type A” people and “pleasers” also have a tough time saying “no.” Most leaders can empathize with this thinking because they often fall into either or both two categories themselves.  You should know if your people are operating near their maximum delivery capacity. Bosses should be reticent to pile on to an already full workload without first giving guidance on what priorities can be shifted to accommodate the new request.  A simple, “Do you feel you have the existing capacity to get this done, or do I need to help you reprioritize other work?” can go a long way in helping the other person come to grips with their time constraints.  Always push back if you think they are being too optimistic or confident.

Finally, the last point is the only one that may derive from an “attitude” issue although not always.  Sometimes people just don’t buy into what you are asking them to do.  They don’t see the value in the request or think there is a better way to approach something. They may also believe your interest in the objective will wane as you focus on other things (based on experience). Some attitudes are fixable, others are not.  This is always a judgment call.  I advise my clients to unburden the organization with poor attitudes ASAP, but deal with everyone else using the following two questions and a related management action:

  • Do you appreciate the value of this assignment?
    • If not, ask why and dig deeper.  Be steadfast about the outcome you desire but let go of your ego during this discussion.  Not everything you produce is of equal or easily decipherable value.  Employee buy-in is an earned currency and should never become a default expectation.
  • Do you have a better way to approach the same outcome?
    • Listen to what they have to say.  They may have a better idea.
  • Practice a “less is more” approach to management.
    • Don’t pepper your people with an endless litany of assignments just because you can. Busy people don’t need more work, they need more focused high impact direction.  If you can’t prioritize, then how do you expect them to do it?


I encourage you to reflect on the above if you are having problems with accountability and your direct reports.  I am confident that one or more of the reasons listed will be your guide to better communication and results.  Of course, a lack of consequences (good or bad) for performance can also be the issue (a topic of other blogs), but I would only go there if you have improved your ability to delegate the action in the first place.  Most people show up to work and want to do the right things, especially those that have climbed the organizational chart.  It is our job to make sure they get the clarity of direction and discussion they need to be successful.

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