What to do when your team isn’t stepping up

Failure to deliver is one of the biggest leadership frustrations. Maybe that report was late or not up to scratch. Perhaps they're dragging their feet or dropping the ball on a key piece of work.

Regardless, with ultimate responsibility for performance, the failure can reflect badly on you as the leader.

When your team starts pointing the finger at others and fails to take accountability, frustration turns to disappointment.

As you seek to understand what happened, your team’s reasons can feel more like excuses. Your trust in them to ‘do the job well’ erodes and you’re left to rectify the situation.

With inevitable time pressure, it’s tempting to just do it yourself.  At least it will be quicker and done properly this time.

But before you dive onto this slippery slope, press pause…

There is a way to help your people step up that doesn’t require Performance Management/Improvement Plans.

This is one of the most powerful techniques for building, strengthening and sustaining ownership, accountability and responsibility. Better yet, it's a simple way to create empowerment and the autonomy many of your people crave.

#1 Beware the Expectation vs Reality Trap

Expectations are what we think will happen, while reality is what happens.

While we hope these two will match up, they often don't. It helps to understand the three parts of Expectations:

  1. Others’ expectations of us.
  2. Our expectations of others.
  3. Our expectations of ourselves.

While the first two are often clear (if not always agreed), our expectations of ourselves are often overlooked.

When Maryanne’s boss asked her to provide a presentation on market trends for an upcoming board meeting, she was clear about the expectation.

Giving the task to her team, she assigned different topics to different team members, who all confirmed that they understood the assignment.

The day before it was due, it shocked Maryanne to see that the presentation didn't answer the question and had gone off on an irrelevant tangent. One topic was missing as the team member responsible for it had been busy with another priority.

Failing to set expectations of herself, Maryanne had abdicated the task and left them to it. When we explored what she might do differently in future to achieve a better outcome, she identified that she could:

  • Check for understanding by asking and seeking clarifying questions at the start
  • Gain team commitment to the deadline and a principle of ‘If in doubt, ask for help’
  • Provide a template with specific headings of what needs to be covered and an example of what a great presentation looks like
  • Proactively and regularly check on progress, including reviewing drafts
  • Encourage the team to work together rather than in isolation to streamline the task

Setting clear and explicit expectations of yourself and sharing with the team what YOU will do to help will increase the likelihood of a successful reality.

#2 Adopt the Accountability Assumption

No one comes to work intending to do a terrible job.

The Accountability Assumption is that your people are doing and will do their very best to meet your expectations. They want to succeed and will do their best to make that happen.

The second part of this assumption is that just because people should be able to do what you’ve asked; it doesn’t mean they can.

When CEO Andrew expressed frustration that his senior leaders were being highly paid but not operating at the level he expected, he was surprised when I asked, “Do they know how to lead at a senior executive level?

Many people are put into roles where they don’t have the required knowledge, skills, experience, mindset or confidence. Simply expecting them to ‘step up’ without training and support is guaranteed to create frustration for you and fear for them.

Establishing trust and honesty rather than fueling fear of failure builds competence and confidence. Leadership coaching can show you how to use existing strengths to build strengths in new areas, close development gaps and bring out their best.

The Accountability Assumption parks the judgement and shifts your focus to collaboratively removing the barriers to success.

Small steps lead to big changes and success breeds success

#3 Establish Agreed Responsibility

Not all assumptions are right! In fact, many are ill-founded and dangerous. 

When we assume others will provide vital information; make timely decisions; use sound judgement or complete actions within our time frames, we’re setting ourselves up for unmet expectation frustration.

What if…

  • They lack confidence, competence or experience but won't admit they need help
  • There is confusion about what’s required by when?
  • This task isn’t a high priority for them and they don’t appreciate how much we are relying on them?
  • They are facing a private challenge which we know nothing about?

All of these can impact delivery. Left unchecked, assumptions can lead to blame, finger pointing (‘They didn’t get it to us on time!”) and resentment.

Defining responsibilities includes specifying the task and expectation upfront. It also includes defining the way in which the task is to be completed.

Bringing everyone together to agree responsibilities includes identifying:

What does ‘Done’ look like?

The answer will include meeting expectations; accuracy, quality and timeliness. This is a great question for teams who tend to over deliver because they have access to vast amounts of information and high standards. More isn't necessarily always better!

What does ‘Success’ look like?

In addition to the criteria for ‘Done’, this may include working collaboratively as a team; proactively supporting each other to solve problems; exceeding expectations and sharing the credit.

#4 Create Wrap Around Ownership Support

Being the ‘Owner’ carries a burden of responsibility. The buck stops with you and the bigger the responsibility, the bigger the burden. It’s likely you’ll need to rely on many people to achieve a successful outcome.

Assigning ownership to one of your leaders or teams and then ‘leaving them to it’ is fraught with danger. They may feel overwhelmed or unclear on what ‘ownership’ actually means.

Likewise, when you assign ownership and then micro-manage (because you don’t really trust them to do a great job), you’re sending out a message that you don’t have faith or confidence in their ability. In this case, the ‘ownership’ you bestowed upon them is tokenistic and will likely do more harm than good.

The solution to this challenge lies in asking one simple question:

What do you expect and need from me?

Another way to ask this is,

What needs to happen or be in place for you to feel confident about owning this responsibility?

Once the Owner understands the task; is clear on expectations and agrees to be responsible for leading the task, ask them what support they need. This conversation can include meeting needs they may not realise they have.

Support can include:

  • Your time – regular check-ins that don’t get bumped!
  • Specific resources
  • Prioritisation of tasks and freeing up capacity
  • Providing an escalation path to manage risks and issues
  • Tools, training, mentoring and coaching.

When leaders feel completely supported, there are no limits to what they can achieve.

#5 Establish an 'Above the Line' Culture

Introduce the concept of Above and Below the Line thoughts, beliefs and behaviours.

Above the Line Below the Line

Typically these will be either positive or negative and many people are simply unaware of the impact they are having on themselves and others around them. Ask your team to identify common phrases they use and where they sit - above or below the line.

The goal is to stay Above the Line as much as possible.

Although we all have our off days and dip Below the Line, it can be surprisingly easy to reframe our reality when someone kindly and genuinely asks, 'Hey you sound like you're having a bit of a 'below the line' moment. How can I help?'


The most effective way to build Ownership, Accountability and Responsibility is to demonstrate complete faith that you know, with the right support, your team can do it and you believe in them.

Carpe diem

Caroline Cameron

Need help to create a confident, accountable culture where everyone succeeds and thrives?

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About Caroline

Caroline Cameron is an award winning, master certified executive, career and business team coach, workshop facilitator and speaker. Caroline is on a mission to help mid-career professionals and evolving organisations harness the power of change to achieve success in business, work and life.

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