In the contemporary work landscape, a curious phenomenon is unfolding. Recently, when conducting a workshop on Accountability for senior leaders, I was reminded of the mounting hesitance among leaders about setting clear expectations and holding their employees accountable.

This hesitation, as many of the leaders at the workshop confided, comes from a place of fear: fear of being branded as controlling, of being accused of micromanaging, or even, of pushing employees to the point of requiring stress leave. As I reflect on their experiences, it’s evident that we cannot, and must not, underestimate the gravity of this situation, especially in a hybrid work environment. 

Accountability and setting expectations are foundational to any organization’s success. It’s what steers a ship in the direction it is supposed to go. When leaders become tentative in giving direction, setting clear expectations, or holding their teams accountable, not only does it dilute the organization’s purpose, but it also creates an environment where ambiguity and uncertainty flourish. Such environments can be even more stress-inducing for employees than clear directives. In a paradoxical twist, in trying to avoid being seen as too directive or too demanding, leaders might inadvertently be cultivating a more tense work atmosphere. 

But how did we arrive at this point, where the simple act of leadership – directing, defining, correcting, and confronting – has become a tightrope walk? 

The rise of employee-centric workplaces, while a positive shift in many ways, might be playing a role here. The emphasis on ensuring employee well-being, mental health, and work-life balance, crucial as they are, might sometimes be misunderstood or misapplied. Leaders, in their attempt to be compassionate and understanding, may sometimes swing too far in the other direction, becoming overly cautious. 

However, this hesitance can be counterproductive. Just as a ship needs a captain to navigate through storms and calm seas alike, employees look to their leaders for direction. When leaders are anxious about setting clear goals or holding their teams accountable, it can result in a rudderless ship. Employees are left wondering what’s expected of them, leading to disengagement or even anxiety. Contrary to the fears of these tentative leaders, employees often appreciate clarity. Knowing what’s expected and where one stands can be incredibly freeing. 

Being labeled as ‘controlling’ or ‘micromanaging’ is a valid concern for leaders. No one wants those tags. But there’s a chasm of difference between micromanaging and providing clear guidance. Micromanaging involves dictating how every task should be done and not trusting employees to use their judgment. Setting expectations, on the other hand, is about defining what needs to be achieved, and perhaps, defining the broad contours of how to get there. It leaves ample room for individual creativity and judgment. 

As for the very real concern about pushing employees to the brink of stress or burnout, it’s a matter of balance and communication. Setting high standards doesn’t mean disregarding employee well-being. It’s about establishing a dialogue, understanding individual thresholds, and adjusting accordingly. It’s about fostering a culture where feedback flows in both directions. If an employee feels overwhelmed, there should be channels for them to communicate that without fear of reprisal. 

While the current work climate, with its emphasis on employee well-being, is a step in the right direction, leaders must remember their fundamental roles. They must shed the fear of being labeled and embrace their roles of guiding, directing, and, yes, holding accountable.For in doing so, they not only drive their organizations forward but also provide their teams with the clarity and purpose they seek. It’s time to find that balance again, to merge compassion with clarity, and to lead with both heart and direction. 



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