Mistakes Leaders Make in Accountability Conversations: And What to do Instead.


Accountability is a mindset leader look for most in their people. Higher levels of ownership across the organisation so everyone's focused on the right things and resources are utilised efficiently.

But empowering accountability is one of the biggest challenges’ leaders face. Without the right skills and awareness, it's easy to rely on driving people harder or giving up and overcompensating by doing more themselves.

Both reactions damage trust and leave people frustrated, disconnected and avoiding collaboration.

Here are the most common mistakes I see leaders and managers make every day when attempting to hold their people accountable, and what you can do instead to influence behaviour and results.



Not staying long enough in the problem to unlock new thinking. Like a rock skimming across the surface leaders touch on the high-level points, expecting everyone's on the same page. They see the issue clearly, tell their people what's wrong and jump in with the fix. To their confusion, the problem continues to repeat itself.


What to do instead:

Stay with the problem long enough with your people to get to the core of what's really going on. Be curious, ask open questions, dig deep into the issue, find out what's in the way. Be ok with awkward silence, create a space of 'healthy tension' that inspires light bulb moments. This practice creates interdependent thinkers who will come to you more often with ideas and solutions.


Myth Buster: Asking questions and being curious takes too long. Yes, coaching and influencing requires an investment of time up front, but if we were to compare the number of times you've revisited an issue because nothing has changed, to one conversation that unlocks new thinking, the investment would prove well worth it.



Asking the wrong questions. In their hurry, leaders can resort to closed or accusatory-type questions, e.g. "Why wasn't it finished on time?" Depending on how these questions are asked, they can shut down thinking and put people in a state of defense. You'll never uncover the real problem if people feel they need to protect themselves around you.


What to do instead:

Ask intentional and purposeful questions beginning with "What..." and "How...", e.g. "What happened for you that the deadline was missed?" or "How do you intend to move forward from here to ensure we don't repeat this mistake?" and "What do you need from me to navigate the obstacles ahead?" These kinds of questions trigger the brain to go looking for new answers.


Myth Buster: Believing we're already asking good questions. Leaders commonly ask the same questions they've always asked (they're just asking them more often or with stronger intent). Questions that unlock new thinking are well-considered, insightful questions that, when asked, leave no doubt in the asker or listener's mind that it's a new and valuable question.

One way to know is that the initial response will be silence or "I don't know". This is exactly what you want - it means you're moving into new thinking. The trap here is fast-paced leaders don't like hearing nothing or "I don't know" so in their urgency they can act as the block to the thought process needed to identify new ideas. Make it safe for your people to say, "I don't know", and then coach them to find new solutions.



Believing everyone who says they understand what to do differently once the meeting is finished. Most people leave meetings knowing something needs to change but with no idea how to implement what's been discussed. So, in confusion or stress, human beings return to what they've always done - what's comfortable and familiar - even though they've heard you say more than once that change is required.


What to do instead:

Invest in clarifying and agreeing expectations during and at the end of each meeting. Share your expectations including specific measures of success, milestones and timelines. Also share WHY fulfilling on the expectations is important - to you, the organisation and the success of your people. Ask if they align with your expectations and ask WHY it's important to THEM to fulfill the expectations.


Myth Buster: Telling people what's expected is enough. It's not. You need to gain their buy-in so when they're challenged, they have a personal reason, a strong enough WHY, to lean into their fear and take new and uncomfortable action.



Making general sweeping statements to everyone about what what's expected (hoping the individual whose behaviour was the reason for the announcement will receive the message and make a change).

What to do instead:

Have a direct, open, honest conversation with the person who is not meeting expectations. Separate the behaviour from the person and address the behaviour together in a state of partnership - equal measures accountability and compassion.


Myth Buster: Believing a 'common offender' doesn't want to change, grow or take on more responsibility. This is usually a false assumption. Every human being wants to learn, grow, improve and be proud of themselves. What's most often in the way is fear. Creating a culture of trust supports people to move through their fear, try new things and improve.



Communicate in the same way with everyone in their team. Leaders usually communicate from what I call their 'Success Strategy' - a combination of their personality, experience and expertise. It's the formula that has brought them a level of success in their career and their lives, however it also has an expiry date. You know you've hit your expiry date when what's worked before is no longer working.


What to do instead:

Learn the nuances and unconscious biases of how each of your people think, react and communicate. When you understand what drives the thinking and behaviour of your team, you can be dynamic rather than static in a conversation, adapting your style to bring out the best in them.


Myth Buster: Speak to others the way you want to be spoken to. It's what we're conditioned to believe, however it can actually be the cause of the problem. Leading others requires learning what they need from you to perform at their best.



Dr. Joe Dispenza, Neuroscientist, New York Times best seller, and owner of NeuroChangeSolutions - an organisation working with companies like Google in cultural development, states the three core requirements he has of his own employees:


- Purpose

- Accountability

- Competence.


When people are aligned in purpose, take 100% accountability for their responsibilities and have the skills and capability to execute their roles, they are high performing individuals that build a high performing team.

A leader's job is to hold people accountable in ways that strengthen trust, with equal parts intentionality and curiosity. This enables them to move through their challenges with confidence, clarity and certainty.

It's a state of Partnership that inspires people to transcend their limiting behaviours, elevate themselves out of fear, gossip and costly workarounds, and contribute their best to a future possibility much bigger than themselves.

Learning how to elicit this mindset and behaviour is a leader's greatest leverage point and the skill that sets leadership apart from task-driven management.