Out of all the things we expect of leaders—taking charge, setting strategy, empowering people, driving execution, you name it—what one single behavior would you guess is most often neglected or avoided among executives? Seeing the big picture? Nope. Delegating? Nope. Mapping out detailed project plans? Nope. Although many upper-level managers don’t do these things enough, the single-most shirked responsibility of executives is holding people accountable. No matter how tough a game they may talk about performance, when it comes to holding peoples’ feet to the fire leaders step back from the heat.
In our database of over 5,400 upper-level managers from the US, Europe, Latin America, and Asia-Pacific gathered since 2009, 46% are rated “too little” on the item, “Holds people accountable—firm when they don’t deliver.” Remarkably, the result holds up no matter how you slice the data—by ratings from bosses, peers, or even subordinates. It holds up for C-level executives compared to Directors and Middle managers. It is about the same in different cultures too—although accountability is a bit more common in some countries than others, it is still the most neglected behavior within every region we have studied.
When we first observed this trend, it struck us as counterintuitive. An epidemic of letting people off the hook is incongruous with the view of senior managers as tough, hard chargers intent on getting results. But episodes of Mad Men notwithstanding, this stereotype of executive leaders is seriously out of date. Abraham Zaleznik wrote about this myth over 20 years ago in his classic HBR article, “Real Work.” Zaleznik chronicled how he saw American managers, influenced by the rising popularity of the human relations school, turn increasingly from the substantive work of organizations—creating products and services, cultivating markets, pleasing customers, cutting costs, and getting stuff done—to what he termed “psychopolitics.” What he meant was that in the 1980s American managers became obsessed with managing their popularity and were more concerned with greasing the skids, avoiding tough conversations, and maintaining a favorable image. Interest in productivity gave way to process. Controversy and conflict about what needs to get done and how to do it was replaced with the ambiguity of politeness, political correctness, and efforts to not offend.
We think this trend has continued, and perhaps even been intensified as the workforce has become more diverse and especially as it has gotten younger. Over the last year blogs at US News, Daily Finance, Forbes, and articles like this one in the New York Times have questioned the work ethic and entitlement mentality of generation Y. The youngest members of the workforce, especially in the US, have grown up in a sheltered environment; they expect praise and recognition and can be indignant when it is not forthcoming. They are not particularly open to critical feedback. No surprise, then, that at a time when talent retention and engaging employees is de rigueur we get silly advice to management such as, “don’t give employees a hard time about their weaknesses, celebrate their strengths.”
But there is an even deeper explanation for the lack of managerial courage to hold employees to account for their performance. The evidence comes from experimental studies of cooperation and the problem of “free-riding” which reveal the individual- and group-level outcomes that accrue when some team members don’t carry their weight and drag on the performance of others. The first lesson from this research is that within a group, free-riders and cheaters often get ahead of hard working contributors: they enjoy the benefits of group membership without making the personal sacrifice.
However, groups of cooperative contributors outperform groups of cheating free-riders. Thus, it is no surprise that groups in which free-riders are punished for their loafing outperform groups in which they are not. But the interesting finding in all of this is that the person who does the punishing actually pays a personal price in terms of lost social support. In a nutshell, group performance requires that someone plays the role of sheriff, but it is a thankless job. It is another one of those sticky cases where what is good for the group can be bad for the individual. You know, the kind of stuff that in another era was considered commendable because it served a greater good than self-interest.
In this light, it is easy to see why so many people in positions of authority are soft on accountability. In an age of career management and “psychopolitics,” where personal interest reigns supreme, who wants to risk being the bad guy? The unfortunate consequence, however, is that no matter what short-term costs an upwardly ambitious manager avoids by not playing the sheriff, they are overshadowed in the long run by lackluster organizational performance and a culture of mediocrity. Add this up over time and across departments and business units and the aggregate costs of neglecting accountability can be staggering for everyone.
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