Leaders love to talk about accountability: the idea that people have to honor commitments and deliver on what they say they will do. It creates order and expectations. It also produces results — that is, when it works. When it doesn’t work, the cause is often leaders who assume the principle doesn’t apply to them.
In addition to executing tasks, leadership accountability involves navigating complicated human dynamics, including their own. Therein lies the problem.
A Familiar Story
“What do you want this leadership team meeting to achieve?” I ask a smart, strategically aware CEO from a fast-growing industry.
“I need them to accept that, like it or not, change is happening. They have to climb on board and quit fighting it,” he responds.
“What’s getting in their way?”
“They are stuck on product offerings they know how to deliver but that are irrelevant to where our industry is going,” he replies. “If we are going to beat the competition, we have to move into radically new areas. If we don’t, our customers will go elsewhere. I need you to change their attitudes and embrace risk.”
In other words, I can’t help thinking, you want someone other than you to fix them. I take a deep breath.
“Got it. You want them to leave their safety zone and try out new offerings they don’t know how to manage, weigh or measure.”
“OK, so what changes are you willing to make to support their transformation?” I ask.
“Well, in order for the team to change, we have to address their fears. What do they imagine will happen if they lead the launch of a new offering and it stumbles right out of the gate? How will senior management respond? Will anyone have their backs? How will it affect their careers? These are just a few of the questions.”
The executive nods slowly as if to ask, “And?”
“And,” I say, interpreting his body language, “dealing with the personal impact of those possibilities includes you.”
“Their willingness to reveal their fears to you and their teammates about traveling new horizons will be a direct function of how willing you are to share your experiences. What do you worry about? What do you feel and do when you don’t know things? What happens when you’re not sure anyone has your back?”
“In other words,” I continue, “leaders need to model that not having everything ‘handled’ is not only OK, but it’s essential to pursuing new ideas.”
“Oh,” he says, after a long pause. “OK. Why don’t we both go do some more thinking about this and circle back on what to do.”
The conversation ends there and does not resume.
What Does Accountability Mean for Leaders?
For any employee, accountability includes such challenges as competent delivery of technical skills, identifying all the project steps to budget time adequately and structuring teams to include the skill sets needed to achieve business goals.
For leaders, accountability has another layer. It includes all of the above, plus management of a raft of gnarly human behavioral issues. That’s what makes it hard: Leadership accountability involves tricky conversations with uncertain outcomes.
It might involve determining whether a legacy executive has capabilities that will add value to the company’s evolved business, pressing team leaders to step outside their comfort zones and enforce critical deadlines with independently minded team members, or directing overwhelmed managers to surmount their trust issues and delegate work.
None of these conversations is enjoyable, but without them, suboptimal performance, misdirected energy or just plain bad behavior will undermine success.
The Places Leaders Hide: Three Defensive Behaviors
Rather than facing the discomfort of difficult interactions, leaders often disappear behind defensive behaviors. Here are three of the most common.
It’s fun to invent products, cultivate client relationships and consult with industry peers. These activities build the future. However, without making sure that the team can execute, the benefit of new opportunities is moot.
Instead of taking on hard conversations, we hear excuses:
- I don’t have time for that right now.
- He’s busy with [project]. I’ll talk to him later.
- What’s the point? She knows what she’s supposed to do.
Procrastination originates from many sources: anxiety about tackling difficult work, fear of failure and perfectionism. By putting off the conversation, leaders are attempting to escape the necessity of confronting their fears.
2. Conflict Avoidance
The need to ask difficult questions might trigger conflict avoidance for leaders, because they often precipitate negative responses. Further, to solve problems, leaders must accept not having control over the outcome and, at the same time, remain open to possibilities. The conversation could support their position or prove them wrong; having it requires overcoming the fear of opposition and asking questions, listening closely, and posing follow-up questions to surface a mutually workable solution.
It’s easier to blame others than to own our shortcomings. The concept of projection originated in clinical literature based on the work of Sigmund Freud. In its simplest form, the term refers to seeing our own traits in other people. When people project, they avoid recognizing their personal issue and treat others in ways that actually reflect how they feel about themselves. Projection reinforces the search for fault rather than solutions, which is destructive to team cohesion and performance.
Projection exists on a continuum. At one end is a situation where someone overlooks his or her contribution to a problem and focuses on the faults of others. It’s not productive behavior, but the stress of the moment can cause even the strongest people to deflect blame and forget their role in the problem.
At the other end of the continuum is a deeply defensive personality that regards owning a problem as a threat to his or her safety and identity. This behavior is a common defense of narcissists. Overcoming their projecting behavior poses a substantial challenge that an organization might or might not be able to solve.
Bringing Leaders out of Their Hiding Places
The CEO in the story I told earlier exemplified all three defensive behaviors that sidestep accountability. He put off deciding what to do to move his team forward (procrastination), avoided dealing with his team directly about their resistance to risk (conflict avoidance) and transferred his own fear of taking the risks associated with new product offerings to his team (projection).
The remedy for overcoming these defensive behaviors starts with the organization’s undertaking its own difficult conversations to help the leader recognize the problem, the cost to the organization and what behavioral changes he or she needs to make.
For a self-aware leader, the opening conversation and behavioral coaching might be enough. For others, it could require a commitment to do serious personal work on their resistance to admitting fears, opening up to their team and taking behavioral risks. Success depends on the ability of the executive to gain insight, acknowledge personal truths and trust that others will support him or her through behavioral change.
Leadership accountability involves complex problems and difficult conversations. Without it, however, an organization cannot succeed. Dedicating time and resources to strengthen leadership accountability will be well worth the investment.