Seven Factors That Can Kill a Culture of Accountability

The Gist:

  • One of the key responsibilities of a leader is creating a culture of accountability.
  • Accountability doesn’t mean that you need to be a micro-manager or a tyrant.
  • To create and sustain a culture of accountability, you need to avoid seven common mistakes.

One of the marks of an effective leader, especially a sales leader, is building and maintaining a culture of accountability. The ability to assign responsibility to others, making them accountable for achieving certain results, is a critical leadership competency, even if it is honored more in the breach. Because most leaders have never been taught or trained to hold people accountable, they often embrace two ineffective alternatives instead. In both cases, the failure of leadership often goes back to seven common mistakes.

The Hands-Off Manager

The first mistake that many new leaders make is to decide that holding people accountable makes them a micro-manger. Because they struggle to ensure that the individuals on their teams are doing their work effectively and producing the outcomes for which they are responsible, they fall into a sales leadership type we can describe as “laissez faire” or “hands off.”

There are many reasons someone might default to hands-off management, but two loom large. The first is that they once worked for a leader with a tyrannical style: one that does nothing more than drive activity and wander around to make sure everyone on their team is constantly working. The tyrant insists that employees do everything the way they believe it should be done, and they are certain they need to enforce compliance, so the hands-off leader desperately tries to avoid the same mistakes.

The second reason the hands-off manager leader avoids accountability is because it means they have to impose consequences on those who do not produce the results expected of them. People who avoid such conflict find it terribly difficult to hold people accountable, especially those who need accountability.

A tyrant manager yells at his sales worker through a megaphone

The Tyrant

Like the hands-off leader, the tyrant may have worked for another tyrannical leader in the past. But instead of going to the opposite extreme, the tyrant simply repeats the same leadership style, often because they haven’t seen enough good leadership to model.

But that’s not the only factor: tyrants are also worried about their own position and convinced that they are inadequate to their level or responsibility. Because they fear for their position, they push the people in their charge to do their work—even when they are doing their work—making their approach incompatible with true accountability.

Seven Factors That Kill Accountability

These seven factors often drive both models of failed leadership.

  1. Trust Issues: The hands-off leader shows too much trust, while the tyrant shows too little trust. You cannot create a culture of accountability when you have too much trust, believing that you don’t have to review anyone’s results. Nor can you create accountability when there is no trust. Accountability requires that you assign responsibility and trust that the person will produce the result you asked them to create.
  2. Unclear Expectations: One of the ways you can make accountability more difficult is by not providing clear expectations of what you are asking the person to do. Instead, eliminate any misunderstanding about what they need to produce—including any standards for what is and is not acceptable. The directive to “win new business,” for example, is not the same as “win new business at this margin or higher.”
  3. No Reason or Rationale: A work assignment can feel like a punishment if you don’t explain to your employee why the task is important. The more clearly you can explain the project’s value to the individual, to your clients, and to the enterprise, the more buy-in you can create. That buy-in improves your ability to hold people accountable.
  4. No Strategy: When you engage the initiative and resourcefulness of the individuals on your team, you almost guarantee that you’ll get their best results. But oftentimes, you will need to recommend a strategy for accomplishing what you assign them. One sales leader I observed told his team that they needed to double their business vs. the prior year, but without providing any guidance as to how they were supposed to accomplish that after missing their prior year’s numbers. When they asked, he just told them to work harder. You owe your team a strategy.

    A man holding a large magnet

  5. Making Suggestions: A lot of what leaders say can be interpreted as a suggestion, which leaves open the possibility of not doing something. When you hold someone accountable, you eliminate the choice of not doing something. Setting clear expectations should encourage your team to be resourceful, and you may even suggest options for achieving a giving result, but you can’t make the result optional.
  6. No Review: The more you avoid reviewing results, the less accountability you will have. When you skip team meetings or postpone them to handle a problem, you are projecting that you are not that interested in the results you asked your team to create. Your team needs to know that you are going to ask them to report their results and that they will be called to account. Keep your commitments so your team will keep theirs.
  7. Allowing People to Fail: If you want accountability, you have to work to make sure people do not fail. For a lot of leaders that means inspecting their results on much more frequent timelines, giving them additional resources, and ensuring they have the help they need to get the job done. When people fail, it’s often because their leader has allowed it. You need to hold yourself accountable for your people’s success.

Do Good Work:

  • What expectations do you set and how do you ensure they are clear?
  • What is your weakness when it comes to accountability?
  • Which of the seven factors do you need to improve?

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Filed under: Leadership, Sales

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