Accountability: Five Ways CEOs Fail their Employees

David Baker
Accountable əˈkoun(t)əb(ə)l/ adjective (of a person, organization, or institution) required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible. "government must be accountable to its citizens"
synonyms: responsible, liable, answerable; to blame "the government was held accountable for the food shortage"

I'm CEO and one of the original founders of Think Shift. When I walk through the halls of the office and see dishes piled up in the sink, or scroll through our company blog and see that a new post hasn't been published in two weeks, I’m confronted by a choice. Do I fix it? Or do I let the person whose job it is fix it?

If you struggle with this too, you’re not alone.

At Think Shift, we’ve asked over a hundred CEOs of small- and mid-sized companies one simple question:

What's your biggest challenge in the workplace?

The most frequent response was easily, “accountability in the workplace." And this isn't much of a surprise — a study by Harvard Business Review revealed that almost 50% of managers are terrible at accountability.

So what does an accountability problem in the workplace mean? It means an office culture where your employees do not truly own their actions or outcomes. Accountability is a daily practice—it means everyone in the organization taking responsibility for failures when they occur, no matter how small.

Here's an example of an accountability failure:

I ask a colleague for a report in one week. A week and a half goes by, and I finally get an email saying, "Sorry I’m late — had a few fires to put out. I’ll provide that report in a few days." As CEO, I respond by saying, “Okay.” A few days is fine. And, in a few days, I get the requested report.

How many failures occurred in that scenario?

You may think there was only one. But really, there were two failures:

  1. My colleague failed to notify me ahead of time that the plan would be late.
  2. I failed to hold my colleague accountable. By not calling her out when it happened, I made my colleague's delay acceptable.

So, what do you think is going to happen next time? Late again.

This is a big problem for CEOs.

When you allow your employees to avoid ownership, the problem doesn’t just disappear. Instead, you become the new owner of that problem. And those problems pile up quickly on your plate.

That’s why so many CEOs answer with “accountability” as the number one problem in their organization: because they feel the pain of dealing with so many problems that should belong to others.

So why don’t CEOs hold more people accountable in their own organizations? Here are the top five reasons:

Failure #1: The temptation to be popular

As CEOs, we hire people we like, we work alongside them (often, for many years), we have become friends and we need them to be successful going forward. We tell ourselves that holding them accountable will risk their motivation or hurt their commitment. We reason that making them uncomfortable right now is not profitable; we tell ourselves, I don’t have time, and it's best to let this one go.

But we are fooling ourselves. We chose to let it go, not due to timing or concern for their comfort, but rather, out of concern for our own comfort. We let ourselves off the hook because we made a choice to value popularity over responsibility. The best place to start is by being accountable to ourselves to hold others accountable.

Failure #2: Unclear expectations

It's impossible to hold someone accountable if expectations of success aren't clearly defined and agreed upon at the start of a project. Defining success can be as simple as, “We will accomplish that project by this date and it will be measured this way, do you agree to accept this responsibility?” We don’t need people to sign in blood for every transaction, but we need to be clear up front and resist the temptation to just to get started and deal with clarity later.

Failure #3: Taking over

Do you ever feel like your employees aren't proactive enough with their projects? Are people quieter and less vocal about their ideas when you're in the room?

There's a thin line between helping someone with a problem and taking on that problem yourself. And when the boss is in the room, it's easy for people to feel they've lost their authority.

For this reason, the higher up in the organization a 'helper' is, the more deliberate they need to be to ensure there is no perception of micromanagement, or anything else that would disempower employees or diffuse the responsibility. If the ball is theirs, make sure it stays their ball.

Failure #4: Providing soft landings

Surely, you've been given many reasons why deadlines weren't met over the years: my daughter was sick, the client didn't call back, Jack didn't get his work to me on time so I wasn't able to get mine done on time, etc. Your reflex is to empathize, isn't it? But that simple statement — "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that, is your daughter OK?" — is a subtle way to condone that failure.

We deny people the opportunity to process a deficiency and own the problem when we don't call them out when a commitment gets dropped. Don't give people soft landings for their failures, but don't berate or belittle them, either. Just be quiet and let them explain until they realize they simply need to own it.

Failure #5: Fear of hypocrisy

If I (the CEO) am constantly late, it’s hard for me to hold you accountable for being late. Likewise, if I start meetings late without an agenda, isn’t it fair game for others to hold meetings without focus as well?

It feels hypocritical to hold others accountable when we are not, so we say nothing. Put another way, “I don’t hold you accountable because I don’t want you to hold me accountable.”

Here is the real rub: any organization that has accountability issues has a CEO with an accountability issue.

And this is the best place to start: own your own accountability — get it out there.

Admit you have not been accountable and that you want others to help you by holding you accountable. Get the ball rolling, and you will find it is not as painful as you thought. In fact, people are waiting for it! After all, it is the number one challenge we face in corporate culture.


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