For Workplace Accountability, Leaders Must Clarify, Not Confuse

You already may be a clear communicator. I have no reason to believe that you’re not. However, communication is such an essential element of accountability that everybody should strive to improve those skills, and the A-C-C Model of Accountability can help.

Despite their best intentions, leaders sometimes communicate in ways that make it more difficult for their people to be accountable. Let’s consider two of the ways CEOs, senior executives and managing partners may inadvertently confuse their people, and how that compromises accountability.

Leaders may not communicate clearly about overall roles or goals

Do you realize that some members of your team may not understand something as simple as what their job entails? How many of them even have a job description? Do they take their performance reviews seriously? Do you?

In a survey published in Coaching For Improved Work Performance (McGraw-Hill 2000), author Ferdinand F. Fournies asked 4,000 managers: “Why don’t employees do what they’re supposed to do?”

The response chosen either first or second, 99 percent of the time, was: “They don’t know what they’re supposed to do.”

Yet, when leaders try to solve individual performance problems, Fournies says, they rarely begin at the beginning: helping people understand exactly what they’re supposed to do. If you’re not in the habit of clarifying these things – for yourself and for them – you’re probably confusing your team.

Leaders can be unclear about task expectations

Another thing that contributes to confusion is when people are not clear about what you expect from them on a particular task. When you’re too busy to stop, you may make quick assignments, often communicating these assignments in the hallway, without even really making eye contact. Then you’re surprised later when the results are not acceptable.

One of my clients, the managing director of a large professional services firm, was having a problem with one of his senior consultants. “Is it possible that she just doesn’t know what to do or how to do it?” I asked.

“No way!” he said emphatically. “She’s been with me for 12 years.”

But those 12 years might be adding to the miscommunication. Sometimes, long-time team members are even less likely to understand what’s needed, because they dare not ask, and you dare not tell them. Both sides assume that the person must understand what’s expected, because he or she has been there “forever.” But longevity doesn’t necessarily add up to mind reading.

Other clients protest, “What, are you crazy?! He’s making $130 grand!” Or, “She’s got an MBA!” Of course, these people know what to do… or do they?

I guarantee you that a high salary alone does not ensure that people understand what you want them to do. Nor do advanced degrees. And like longevity, these factors can actually interfere with your communication. If you assume that people should know, and should not require your time or attention, you’re more likely to overlook their need for instruction and guidance.

No matter how successful, educated, or highly compensated people are, they won’t automatically be clear about their responsibilities. If you’re leading them, it’s your job to make sure they know what to do, and how. The only way to do that is through clear communication.

This article was adapted from my book, The Accountability Factor: The Buck Starts Here. You can get your own copy at: