Leadership Accountability Builds Trust in the Workplace

Building trust in any relationship is not easy and takes time, including the employee-leader relationship. Trust may seem like a catch-all term, but it has a definite meaning. In your organization, the level of trust your employees have in their supervisors, managers, and executives can determine whether leadership faces a union organizing campaign, maximize employee productivity, communicate effectively with the workforce, get innovation from employees, and deliver many other benefits. Trust is built through leadership accountability, and leadership accountability is essential to building a positive organizational culture.

Revisiting the Principal of Leadership Trust

Trust is an emotion-based feeling, but its expression is measurable. Trust is an essential element of positive employee relations and employee engagement. Psychologists define trust in various ways, but it is reflected in a set of beliefs and behaviors. Behaviors include acting in a way that shows dependence on someone else, believing a person will act in a certain manner or is dependable, and feeling confident that someone cares. The behaviors reflect an internal thought process and have an emotional dimension. Trust is a positive emotion, and mistrust is a negative one that, cognitively speaking, is like the emotions of dislike and fear.

Trust in the workplace in leaders and their team members is always important, especially during times of continuous disruption like today's business environment conditions. Successful crisis management and change management are successful only when employees and leaders trust each other to make changes, take risks, and express themselves honestly. Trust lowers the stress level, too, because employees believe their leaders will always look out for their best interests. Even if difficult decisions must be made, like layoffs, trust drives a belief the leaders will act fairly and take responsibility for their actions. 

Trust may be an emotion, but leadership accountability is based on behaviors or actions. Trust is earned. It's never a given and should never be assumed. The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer special report found that 79 percent of employees trust their coworkers more than they trust their manager, head of Human Resources, and the CEO. This has serious implications. 

For example, you are implementing a change initiative that affects the design of jobs or presenting the company's position on unions after finding signs of union activity. If employees trust coworkers more, they are the people whom employees will turn to for advice, information, and guidance. Without trust, teamwork won't flourish, and leaders will struggle to succeed because communication is ineffective. That's how important trust in the workplace is for people and the organization as a whole. 

leadership accountability

What is Leadership Accountability?

Leadership accountability is defined in different ways. The simplest definition is the act of holding oneself accountable to others, but that simple definition doesn't explore the depths of accountability and authenticity. As leadership coach Tom Hanson wrote, "Creating a culture of integrity and accountability not only improves effectiveness, it also generates a respectful, enjoyable, and life-giving setting in which to work." Leadership accountability doesn't work in a vacuum, and trust is not blind. 

The principle of leadership accountability embraces the workplace culture, communication, leadership style and skills, personal characteristics, and organizational mission, goals, and processes. The reason is simple: Accepting responsibility for leadership behaviors occurs within the organizational setting and involves people – employees, peers, professional colleagues, customers, and other stakeholders.

Trustworthy and accountable leadership doesn't make decisions in a void without input from others. They meet challenges and own the process for finding solutions and results. The results may be neutral, positive, or negative. Let's face it; everyone has known managers who accept responsibility for successes but quickly shift the blame to other people or circumstances. They refuse personal accountability for negative results, team mistakes, missing deadlines, or not meeting goals. This kind of leadership behavior hurts the organization's culture when leaders are not accountable for their decisions. 

The interesting thing is that leadership accountability can supports positive organizational culture, and your organization's culture should support leadership accountability. Leadership development can cultivate leaders who accept responsibility for their decisions and actions and will strengthen the culture through their behaviors. This is true for any workplace model.

Since the pandemic started, there has been a shift with more employees working remotely full-time or 2-3 days a week. When the remote workplace model was instituted, some remote workers became "islands" because their supervisors or managers were unfamiliar with maintaining leadership accountability with team members working in different locations. The managers and supervisors were uncertain about communication processes, setting new expectations for work performance, and so on. As employers adopt various workplace models, leadership training on accountability focuses on helping leaders apply leadership accountability principles by adapting actions to the workplace model. 

For example, accountable leaders still assign tasks, but they establish a new communication system so team members can continue collaborating as a remote or hybrid team. They set goals and clear expectations for the delivery of work but establish systems for two-way feedback and submitting work that is acknowledged. Leaders do daily check-ins to replace the ability to stop by employee desks or visit work locations.   

Leadership accountability requires managers to be flexible as they accept responsibility for their decisions.

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Characteristics of Accountable Leaders

McKinsey & Co.'s research investigated how organizations can foster psychological safety. Psychological safety is crucial to successfully developing empowered teams. Leaders who don't feel safe delegating or employees who don't feel safe sharing their concerns will never develop trusting relationships. Authoritative leadership behaviors don't create psychological safety, while consultive and supportive leadership behaviors do.

McKinsey & Co. writes, "With consultative leadership, which has a direct and indirect effect on psychological safety, leaders consult their team members, solicit input, and consider the team's views on issues that affect them. Supportive leadership has an indirect but still significant effect on psychological safety by helping to create a positive team climate; it involves leaders demonstrating concern and support for team members not only as employees but also as individuals. These behaviors also can encourage team members to support one another." 

Unfortunately, the research found that few leaders understood how to instill psychological safety in the workplace. One of the important findings was that developing leaders at all levels is important, but many organizations don't do so. Failing to develop frontline supervisors and middle managers leaves gaps in leadership accountability.

Building trust is a key strategy for building a positive team climate where psychological safety defines the culture. Accountable leaders exhibit behaviors that foster psychological safety, so employees and colleagues feel empowered and have an authentic voice they aren't afraid to use. This is critical to creating a positive and supportive culture. The behaviors include:

  • Fully accepts responsibility for decisions.
  • Clearly communicates goals and objectives to team members, setting clear expectations for roles, goals and objectives, deadlines, communication and collaboration, and encouraging feedback.
  • Develops a shared purpose with team members by clearly communicating the company's mission and vision to eliminate ambiguity.
  • Communicates team progress and key results, consistently reinforcing expectations, priorities, and performance standards.
  • Doesn't micromanage because trust is placed in employees to meet goals based on agendas and leadership guidance as progress is made; accountable leaders delegate responsibility for achieving goals so that employees take ownership.
  • Accepts personal ownership of own role and responsibilities and performance goals.
  • Encourages employee ownership of their performance by empowering employees to meet goals through autonomy or the ability to decide how to best perform work duties
  • Encourages employees to share their achievements, challenges, mistakes, and activities; accountable leaders are good listeners, meaning they hear what the employees are saying when they share concerns and use two-way feedback to explore solutions, turning challenges and mistakes into learning opportunities and proving caring for employee wellbeing.
  • Establishes an employee feedback system that enables monitoring work progress without stifling creativity and innovation, coaching and collaborating with team members
  • Show reliability by following through on commitments to employees.
  • Accepts responsibility for team setbacks but readily gives credit and recognition to the team for team successes and uses setbacks and successes as learning.
  • Uses a hands-on leadership style that is consultative and empowering, requiring leaders who have coaching skills to share expertise and knowledge
  • Makes difficult decisions


Trust Measurements are Signposts for Leadership Accountability

The level of trust a team has in its leaders is a clear indication of leadership accountability. If a trusting relationship is not present, there are symptoms indicating so. For example, do your employees:

  • Resist changes
  • Never admit to mistakes
  • Rarely communicate directly with the supervisor or manager
  • Never share new ideas to improve workflows
  • Have a willingness to give leaders honest feedback

When you don't trust someone, there is vulnerability out of fear of repercussions for being truthful. For example, a leader lays the blame for missing deadlines on employees even though the deadlines were unreasonable. Employees are unwilling to discuss the reasons for missing deadlines because they believe the leader is not accepting responsibility for poor decision-making and is looking for scapegoats. Employees don't believe they are treated with respect, work for leaders who don't care about their well-being, and work in a place that doesn't value work efforts.

Employee surveys are a good way to measure trust because they can be anonymous, encouraging honesty. The co-authors of The Four Factors of Trust: How Organizations Can Earn Lifelong Loyalty shared insights on a ProjectHR podcast. Listening to this podcast is an excellent way to get an overview of the importance of trust to organizational and employee success. 

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Benefits of Leadership Accountability for Trust Building

As mentioned earlier, trust is an emotion, and emotions begin in the brain. The benefits of building trust are well documented. A study reported in the Harvest Business Review on the neuroscience of trust reports that high-trust companies report 74 percent less stress, 106 percent more energy at work, and 50 percent higher productivity. It also showed 13 percent fewer sick days, 76 percent more engagement, 29 percent more satisfaction with their lives, and 40 percent less burnout than people at low-trust companies. Other studies have found that developing leadership accountability also improves internal communication across the organization, not just within a team. Add diversity and inclusion training, too, because the changing workforce demographics require accountable leaders with cultural sensitivity. 

Trust begins with leaders who create a psychologically safe environment, are authentic and accountable, and encourage employees to achieve authenticity and accountability. Your investment in leadership development that is focused on developing leadership coaching skills, communication skills, and accountability has a significant ROI. 

Contact our team at IRI Consultants to jumpstart your leadership training efforts. We bring industry and corporate expertise to each client's job, ensuring you get relevant and informed assistance.

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