Four Leadership Traps That Prevent Accountability
Updated: Nov 16
Leaders in an organization wield a lot of power and responsibility. They set the tone for their team, make decisions that affect business outcomes, foster leadership in others and bear the brunt of responsibility when things go wrong.
With so much responsibility, it can be easy to fall into mental traps that prevent a leader from doing their job well and getting the outcomes they want from those they lead. The four most common traps seen at all levels of leadership are costly but can be avoided.
Leadership Trap No 1: Micromanaging
We’re all familiar with the downfalls of micromanaging. For the managed, it can feel stifling and frustrating and can breed mistrust. For the manager, it can feel stressful and draining. Often, micromanaging comes from a place of fear and perfectionism. Perhaps you want to please your own boss or are worried about your reputation if something goes wrong. Whatever the reason, the root causes of micromanaging are a lack of shared accountability between a manager and their direct report and focusing on activity rather than outcome.
When organizational teams operate without accountability, the ownership for projects and outcomes often falls on the shoulders of one person — usually the leader. When things go wrong, no one wants to take responsibility, and the blame games ensue.
The key to getting out of this is to implement healthy accountability within the team that is outcome-driven rather than task-driven. This means that everyone collectively takes ownership for the desired results, not just the activities involved. Any breakdowns along the way are removed by collective problem-solving. Managers must let their direct reports make mistakes (without complete failure) so that they can learn and ultimately succeed. When managers trust their direct reports and value learning over perfection, they are free to do their own jobs well without also trying to do everyone else’s.
Leadership Trap No 2: People Pleasing
Most people want to be liked, and leaders are no different. Whether a leader caters to their bosses or their direct reports, their people-pleasing inevitably hinders their performance and outcomes.
When we people please, we let business outcomes take a backseat to the thoughts and opinions of everyone on the team. Obviously, it’s important to openly listen to others in order to make adjustments that improve processes, enhance operational excellence and produce a high-performing and safe culture. However, many times, listening to others in an attempt to accommodate everyone’s different ideas, opinions and feelings can result in chaos, paralysis and confusion.
Why? Because everyone has thoughts and opinions, and they’re all different based on comfortability, egoic desires, past experience and even mood. Leaders must set the tone for the team by prioritizing business outcomes over ever-changing mind chatter. Even opinions based on past experience, while they can be considered, shouldn’t dictate the future of an organization because the world, culture and external drivers are always changing. What worked in the past may work in the future, but it also may not. Leaders learn to trust themselves and their own instincts, problem-solve with those affected by decisions, and keep the big picture in mind rather than let themselves sway with the moods and opinions of others.
Leadership trap No 3: Perfectionism
Carrying so much responsibility, it’s easy for leaders to get caught in perfectionism. But business, and life for that matter, are all about learning and adjusting along the way. When we try to be perfect, we stall out because in the best case, perfection is momentary, and in the worst case, perfectionism leads to paralysis and overthinking based on theory rather than experience. The important thing is to keep moving, learning and adjusting. Not only does perfectionism keep teams stuck; it also breeds a punitive culture of mistrust, blame and hiding that is difficult to get out of. When we can let go of having to make everything perfect, we are free to take risks, recover from breakdowns, learn and innovate to get breakthrough results.
Leadership Trap No 4: Unclear Outcomes
There are a few reasons leaders can be unclear about outcomes:
They simply don’t know the outcomes they want to achieve.
They think being clear about a task is enough and don’t communicate the final outcome that they’re trying to achieve with that task.
They assume others can read their minds and don’t take the time to check in with their direct reports about their understanding of the desired outcome.
Not being clear about outcomes can also be a form of hiding for leaders. If they’re not clear about what they want, they can’t be blamed if those outcomes aren’t achieved or the deliverables achieved don’t achieve desired goals.
Regardless of the reason, it creates all sorts of problems because those carrying out projects don’t have a clear vision or context of the expectations or the parameters necessary to be successful. Then, they do things based on their own individual sensibilities rather than a shared picture of success.
For a leader to share their outcomes clearly, they must first be clear on the direction, the context of the situation and practicality of their desired outcomes. Clear outcomes can include results, key aspects of execution, parameters for achieving those outcomes (i.e., resources) and the timeline for getting results. This picture of success can also include “habits of collective execution” necessary for effectively involving others in the accomplishment of those outcomes. This requires shared ownership for the picture of success and shared accountability to get it done, problem-solve breakdowns along the way, and learn and adjust as you take steps toward it.
Being a leader is one of the most important and rewarding positions in an organization. But falling into these four traps can drastically reduce both quality of experience as well as business outcomes. To avoid these traps, stay focused on business results, implement shared accountability within the team, value learning and adjustment over perfectionism, and work to clearly outline your expectations and desired outcome.