Author Profile Picture

Dani Bacon

Distinction Business Consulting

Organisation Development Consultant

Read more from Dani Bacon

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Four accountability traps and how managers can avoid them

Lack of accountability among team members can be frustrating for leaders and damaging for organisations. Dani Bacon and Garin Rouch explore common traps that undermine accountability and provide practical tips to avoid them.
silhouette photo of people: Avoiding accountability traps: Essential tactics for managers to build responsible teams

Do you have capable and experienced team members who wait to be told what to do? Are deadlines and commitments routinely missed? Are decisions consistently deferred upwards? Do managers uncover problems too late or feel they need to intervene to get tasks completed? 

These are common frustrations for many leaders, often leading to the question: "How do I get my team to take more ownership?”. In this article, we explore common traps that lead to a perceived lack of accountability and discuss practical strategies to reverse the trend, empowering managers to cultivate a culture of robust accountability.

Trap one: Lack of clear expectations

If people aren’t delivering or behaving as you’d like then ensure they are clear on what you want. 

Research shows that only-one third of our expectations are conscious and articulated.  

Another third are conscious but unarticulated, and the remaining third are unclear even to ourselves. 

Without absolute clarity on expectations, we set ourselves and our teams up for failure.

Only-one third of our expectations are conscious and articulated

The antidote: Set clear expectations

Set aside the idea that people ‘ought’ to know what’s expected – whether due to their seniority, their pay grade or just because it seems obvious – and check the following:

  1. Are you clear on your expectations of others, both in terms of outcomes and their approach?
  2. Have you been specific?
  3. Have you communicated those expectations clearly?
  4. And have they understood?  

Henry Evan’s Accountability Puzzle introduces the ‘Glossary of Failure’, which includes terms like ‘to the highest standard’ or ‘as soon as possible’ – terms open to interpretation. 

Unclear expectations and vague instructions lead to accountability gaps, so aim to be as specific as possible.

Regular one-to-ones provide great opportunities to clarify expectations. Using an Expectations Setting Checklist can be helpful. 

Clear expectations also make giving feedback or holding people accountable easier, as you’ve already laid the groundwork for follow up conversations.

It’s also useful to discuss as a team what accountability means and agree on a shared definition. Including some examples of what accountability looks – and doesn’t look like – in practice can also be a powerful way to drive improvement

Trap two: Lack of commitment

You’ve had a conversation, you’ve been crystal clear with your team on expectations and wrapped up the conversation with a quick ‘Are you happy with what you need to do? You get a nod in response and assume everything is in hand. 

But a few weeks later, things start to unravel. You may have fallen into the trap of securing only partial commitment.  

Often our direct reports might agree to tasks out of obligation or without sharing their caveats such as ‘I’ll complete this if… or ‘I can’t complete this unless…’. They might also misunderstand what’s involved.

Unclear expectations and vague instructions lead to accountability gaps

The antidote: Secure real commitment

To avoid this trap, go the extra mile to ensure genuine commitment. Instead of asking ‘Are you happy with what you need to do?’ ask “Can you take me through what you need to do? and “What’s on your mind?”.

These questions promote a more expansive conversation, allowing you to check for understanding and confirm full commitment rather than just partial agreement.

Trap three: Lack of support and follow up

Things don’t always go as planned. Unexpected challenges arise or we might realise we lack the skills, capability or resources to get something completed.

Projects rarely fail all at once; they usually unravel gradually. If you are unaware of issues with your team’s work, it usually comes down to a lack of communication, a lack of psychological safety – or both.

The antidote: Create psychological safety and check in regularly

  1. Regular check ins: Make time for regular progress check-ins with your team. Agree upfront on how and when you will discuss progress. Simply saying ‘My door is always open’ isn’t enough. As team members may hesitate to interrupt you, leaving you in the dark.
  2. Promote psychological safety: Accountability requires that people aren’t afraid of making mistakes. If people fear blame, fear, retribution they’re less likely to speak.  This means you lose valuable opportunities to know if things are going off track and to help course-correct. One leader we know holds regular ‘bring out your dead’ meeting, where team members are actively encouraged to share the challenges they’re facing.

Trap four: Learned helplessness

While it is tempting to blame team members for a lack of accountability sometimes we need to look more widely. 

Even the brightest individuals can fall into learned helplessness if the environment around them doesn’t support accountability. 

If people are waiting for instructions or are pushing decisions upwards consider these antidotes:

The antidotes: Coaching, avoid micromanaging and promote transparency 

1: Take a coaching approach: Build self-efficacy among your team. Instead of giving directions and solving problems for them, use coaching questions to help them find their own solutions. 

When someone asks ‘what should I do?’ resist the urge to provide the answer. Instead ask ‘what options are you considering?’ Michael Bungay-Stanier's The Coaching Habit has some great questions to get you started.

2: Avoid micromanaging: Reflect on your role in creating learned helplessness.   

Micro-managing creates dependency and erodes self- efficacy, which is crucial for accountability. Consider being coached yourself to break this cycle and get to the root causes of this approach.

3: Promote transparency: Role model accountability by openly sharing your goals and progress, both good and bad. 

Encourage your team to share their work and invite questions about progress. This establishes accountability norms and supports team members, especially when progress stalls

It usually comes down to a lack of communication

A transformative approach

Getting accountability right can transform teams, managers and organisations. To effectively address accountability issues, start by understanding the root causes. 

Begin with these five questions:

  1. Are people clear on what’s expected?
  2. Do people have the skills and knowledge to meet those expectations?
  3. Are they motivated and committed to meet the expectations?
  4. Do they have the capacity, tools, resources, connections and relationships needed?
  5. Are there external factors making the task challenging?

Reflect on a previous instance where someone failed to take responsibility. Which of these traps might be to blame? 

By answering these questions, you can identify and address the underlying issues to build a culture of accountability.

If you enjoyed this article, read: How can we measure the impact of L&D on culture change?

Author Profile Picture
Dani Bacon

Organisation Development Consultant

Read more from Dani Bacon

Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!