Why leaders struggle with accountability: Navigating challenges and solutions


Accountability in leadership

If we are to lead, we have to be accountable.

Yet so many leaders still find it extremely hard.

It’s a topic that comes up again and again in my work.

When you’re in a senior role and dealing with a barrage of decisions that need to be made, and constantly changing goalposts, it can be really hard to remain accountable. Yet it’s one of the main areas that, when it’s not there, can quickly lead to crisis within an organisation.

In this blog I’ll look at why accountability can be so difficult, why it’s so important and outline some tips to help you and your organisation get better at it.

Why is accountability so hard?

It’s largely because we aren’t very good at admitting when we’ve made mistakes. In fact, scientifically, our brains will naturally do whatever they can to justify our actions so that we feel better about our decisions.  

I also believe there are three other main issues that come into play when we’re talking about accountability 

  1. We don’t like holding people to account because, quite simply, it’s uncomfortable – My response to this is always that we have to get a bit uncomfortable to get comfortable. If we don’t take a good look at what we’ve done, and put our hands up when things haven’t gone the way we planned, we will never learn and change.

  2. We’re scared our decision or opinion will be wrong or offend someone – Because we have an in-built need to be liked and a natural inability to assess risk properly, we will naturally shy away from coming out and having a firm opinion on something. Our current ‘cancel culture’ where people can be quickly shot down for holding the wrong opinion only fuels this fear even further.
  • We have put things in place to distance ourselves from decisions – Creating brands, or even teams, removes our need to be accountable as an individual. It becomes easier to hide behind the bigger picture rather than putting your hands up and saying ‘It was me, I got this wrong’.

Why is accountability so important?

Accountability is needed to ensure there’s trust in our relationships at work. Without it, this trust will break down, people will think that there are no boundaries, and chaos will likely follow.  

When we have taken an action we need to be accountable for that action and, if it has been damaging, it takes a huge amount of vulnerability and courage to do so.

There’s a great book called Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in which they tell the story of the time Oprah Winfrey publicly backed an author who, it later turned out, had fabricated large parts of their book.

After a while, Oprah realised that her support of the author was misplaced and she publicly took accountability for that. She stood up on her show and said: “I feel duped, but more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.” (You can read more on this here).

No matter who we are, we’re not above taking responsibility for our actions. Oprah has a duty to millions of viewers and to ensure that they still trusted her it was really important to ensure that the accountability was there for her misjudgement in this case.

What happens when there is a lack of accountability?

A lack of accountability leads to all sorts of symptoms of chaos:  

  • Micro-managing 
  • Broken promises 
  • Apathy 
  • Going through the motions 
  • Disengaged teams 
  • Frustrated teams 
  • Resentful teams 
  • General lack of care 

Trust is very personal and as a result, so is accountability, which means it can have a huge impact on employee engagement. 

If leaders aren’t accountable for their decisions, trust will soon disappear. If employees witness colleagues allowing behaviours that aren’t aligned to the values and culture of their organisation then it may feel like they don’t care about it which, in turn, can feel very personal, like they don’t care about them.

Trying to shrug it off with “it’s just what that person is like” and “it is what it is” can cause a total loss of faith in that person and the culture of the workplace. As leaders, we must be clear that acting outside our culture and values is not ok.

The impact of ignoring accountability, of not working through the things that make it hard, will ultimately be damaging to the long-term retention of your teams.  

If we don’t hold people to account, we are allowing behaviours that aren’t aligned with our own or that of our organisation which will be impacting those around us, probably more than we realise – because once people become disengaged they probably won’t bother to speak up. 

How to improve accountability

  • Do the work – If you’re going to do something that has an impact on others, make sure you’re comfortable with that impact and on being questioned about it. If you’re not, then you need to do more work to get there. Make sure you have done your research on something before you talk about it.  
  • Get comfortable with productive disagreement – Being accountable isn’t about everyone agreeing with you, that will never happen, so we need to be ok with that too. I talk about this in a podcast episode I recorded with Advita Patel and Trudy Lewis for the Calm Edged Rebels.

  • It’s not just about ethics – There have to be morals too. Morals are your own principles about what is right or wrong and it’s important to make decisions that are ethical (in line with the rules) and also morally ok. If you’re making decisions that aren’t ethical or morally right then being accountable for them will be challenging. 
  • Learn how to say sorry – A really useful listen on this subject is this episode of Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us podcastall about how to say sorry. What I took away from the conversation was that no matter who was in the wrong, if you want to salvage a relationship, you have to learn to say sorry.

These are my four core tips. I’d also urge you to explore the RASCI model so that there is clarity about who is actually accountable too.  Make sure you only have one named person in the accountability column – you can’t have a whole team accountable for a job.

Culture and accountability 

Lastly, I want to explore the links between accountability and culture.

There has to be accountability for a culture to thrive. If people aren’t held to account for poor behaviours or doing things that are against the values of the organisation there is little point in trying to change or improve the culture.

Ensuring that accountability is baked into the culture of your organisation is crucial. Make sure accountability is part of performance reviews and appraisals. If it isn’t, it’s not really going to be ‘how things are done around here’ and the accountability isn’t going to stick.

Review your relationships with your team – make sure that you’re not dismissing things because ‘that’s the way they’ve always been done’ and explore how, together, you can ensure the environment is psychologically safe to hold people accountable.  

Brene Brown’s book Dare to Lead is a great read if this is an area you’re struggling with.  

You can hear more on this subject in this episode of the Redefining Communications with Jenni Field podcast.

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Join our community

Subscribe to join our community and we’ll be in touch with helpful advice and updates about how we can take your organisation from chaos to calm. Our community gets invited to a quarterly 90-minute Ask Me Anything online session with Jenni Field, as well as early access to events, discounts and research.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.