Accountability Problems: Who Owns It? 2 Key Questions to Rescue you from your Rescuing Behaviors

By Elise Foster, Master Multiplier Practitioner
September 29th, 2016


With business clients, I often have the privilege of participating in annual strategy sessions where division leaders roll out the annual plan, key objectives and milestones. You know these meetings – lots of fanfare, objectives ready for cascading, clarifying questions – all intended to set the direction for the year. Unfortunately, many times the initial excitement fades, and people go back to doing their job, while the annual plan collects dust on a shelf – until next year. But how can this be? Especially in organizations where holding others accountable is an expected leadership core competency? What is it that makes holding others accountable so difficult? There is not always a simple answer. Sometimes accountability issues stem from lack of resources, unclear expectations, mismatches in ability vs. role, among other things.

One of the biggest obstacles we have observed in holding others accountable comes from the well-intended, often high-achieving leader. You are the leader who believes in her team, sees limitless capability, and even follows the trusted management practices on accountability, like operating as an Investor (the leader who gives other people ownership for results and invests in their success). So, with clear expectations outlined, you hand over ownership to your people, giving 51% of the vote, and then you get out of the way. But, then it happens.

You notice a stumble…or a little less progress than you’d hoped to see. So you do what any well-meaning leader would do – you offer a hand of help. Before you know it you’ve offered so much help that the project is now back on your to-do list! Even worse, now you’re faced with an employee who is questioning his capabilities, after having the project pulled back. But, because you know putting others in charge is a leadership best practice, you have another go at it, putting another unsuspecting employee in the proverbial driver’s seat. You manage to keep your hands (of help) to yourself initially but then get seduced by the pressure of project deadlines. Again you find yourself quickly moving from passenger to driver. The cycle persists, and soon you begin to wonder why YOU are overwhelmed with work. You also wonder, “what happened to the smart and capable team I hired? They can’t seem to get anything done without me?” Sound familiar?

If it does, you might just be getting caught up in the vicious cycle of dependency created by the Rescuer – the leader who can’t stand to see people struggle, so steps in to avert failure and ultimately ensure success. It is this sneaky, almost unnoticeable cycle that subtly depletes intelligence from your people and the organization. It’s natural to want to help, but the next time your “helper” instinct is triggered, what if you approach the employee with a couple of questions instead? You might try asking these questions:

1. What solutions, possibilities or plans have you considered?
2. How can I support you?

By asking these two questions, you’ve signaled that the employee truly does own the work AND that you are available to provide support. While it might seem more natural and expedient to lend a hand today, how might that view change when you consider tomorrow and the ramifications of this cycle of dependency? In a way, these questions are a hand of help in disguise, serving two purposes. First, it gives you an opportunity to pause and better understand the situation – and their thinking – before jumping to a solution (and possibly an incorrect one because you don’t have all the information); and second, it gives your employee an opportunity to grow by tackling and solving tough problems on her own, so she can take on even bigger projects later.

And, if you want to accelerate growth right from the start, don’t wait until a project is in trouble to use these questions. Imagine using them at the start of each assignment. Where you instill ownership with the question: “What’s YOUR plan?” and highlight your availability by asking: “What support do you need from me?” from the get-go. Fast-forward a few projects when your employee starts coming to you and saying: “Here’s my plan and where I need your support.”

Almost all of us can benefit from answering these questions for our managers, our partners, and even our family.

For those of you balancing a career and a family, you may discover that this strategy is helpful with your young children. Imagine what happens when you are talking with your kids about what’s on their plate (homework, housework, social drama), and you start with, “What’s your plan?” rather than the more common approach of saying, “You need to…” Then picture following up with, “How can I support you?” You may just find out your help isn’t needed, or you might find out that they don’t even know how to start creating a plan. In either case, they are in charge, and you are a support resource. The earlier you start, the better, as you grow smart and capable future leaders.

This straightforward approach was offered to me as I facilitated a recent session. After admitting to my own rescuing tendencies with my 8-year-old daughter, a 30-year veteran elementary teacher approached me and said, “Honey, the only two questions you need to avoid rescuing your child are….” Then, she proudly talked about the impact these 2 simple questions had on her own children. Because of this approach, rather than getting frantic problem-ridden phone calls from her college-age daughter, she gets phone calls where her daughter says, “Mom, here’s what’s happening; here’s my plan and how I can use your help.” Wouldn’t we all be so thankful to have both employees and children who can say that and be confident that, in the end, they will own the results?


Elise Foster is a leadership coach who enables business executives to unlock their potential to become even more successful. She is a co-author of The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools and a Master Practitioner for The Wiseman Group. She is known for delivering engaging and impactful workshops and keynotes for business leaders.

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