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Most Managers Are Terrible at Accountability

When we think of all the characteristics of excellent leaders – taking charge, setting strategy, empowering people, driving execution – what is the one single behavior would you guess is most often neglected or avoided among executives? Delegating? Nope. Mapping out detailed project plans? Guess again. How about accountability?  It turns out that the single most shirked responsibility of managers and executives is actually holding people accountable. Recent research conducted by Darren Overfield and Rob Kaiser shows that when it comes to holding people’s feet to the fire, the majority of leaders step back from the heat.

In their recent Harvard Business Review article, Overfield and Kaiser cite that out of their “database of more than 5,400 upper-level managers from the US, Europe, Latin America, and Asia-Pacific gathered since 2010, 46% are rated ‘too little’ on the item, ‘Holds people accountable – firm when they don’t deliver.’” What’s even more interesting is that these results hold up no matter how you slice and dice the data – “by ratings from bosses, peers, or even subordinates,” says Overfield and Kaiser. It even holds up for C-level executives.

I know what you are thinking, “No way!” While this may come across as counterintuitive, the traditional stereotype of managers being the tough, hard characters intent of getting results is a bit out of date. Harvard Business Professor, Abraham Zaleznik, wrote about this very phenomenon over twenty years ago in his classic HRB article, “Real Work.” In his piece, Zalenznik chronicled how American managers, influenced by the rising popularity of the human relations school, turn increasingly from substantive work of organizations – creating products and services, cultivating markets, pleasing customers, cutting costs, getting stuff done – to what he termed “psychopolitics.”

What Zaleznik means is that by the 1980s American managers had become obsessed with managing their popularity. As a result they become more concerned with greasing the skids, avoiding tough conversations, and maintaining a favorable image. He argues that because of this, productivity has given way to process and procedures of which Overfield and Kaiser believe to have intensified over the years.

“Over the last year blogs at USNews, Daily Finance, Forbes, and articles like this one in the New York Times have questioned the work ethic and entitlement mentality of generation Y,” write Overfield and Kaiser. They point out that as the workforce has grown younger, that employees (especially millennials) “expect praise and recognition and can be indignant when it is not forthcoming” and are “not particularly open to critical feedback.” They point out that it’s no surprise then that today’s managers receive advice such as, “don’t give employees a hard time about their weaknesses, celebrate their strengths.”

They believe that there is an even deeper explanation as to why so many managers struggle with accountability. According to evidence from experimental studies of cooperation and “free-riding”, “the person who does the punishing actually pays a personal price in terms of lost social support.” This is a bit of a double edged sword, as we’ve all been in group projects so we all know that within a group someone has to play the role of sheriff to ensure we get things done. It’s one of those situations where what is good for the group is not necessarily good for the individual.

It’s easy to see why in an age of career management and “psychopolitics” so many people in positions of authority are soft on accountability – I mean, who wants to risk being the bad guy? However, as Overfield and Kaiser point out, “no matter what short-term costs an upwardly ambitious manager avoid by not playing the sheriff, they are overshadowed in the long run by the creation of a culture of mediocrity and lackluster organizational performance.” If allowed to develop over time, and across departments it can be staggering for everyone.

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