How can digital leaders foster their team’s accountability?


Michael Kraushaar,

Santiago G. Ponce.




Accountability has been a trending topic for leaders for many years. They wish to be surrounded by people who feel responsible, act independently and pro-actively. Moreover, changing workplace dynamics and increased use of remote/hybrid work in organizations have also elevated the importance of accountability, adding even more challenges for digital leaders.

As pointed out by Gustavo Razzetti in the article why great leaders struggle to build a culture of accountability, “Freedom and accountability are two sides of the same coin. When people are not delivering up to your expectations, it’s tempting to try to enforce accountability. Unfortunately, the more you try to “enforce” or in other words control people, the less accountable they’ll become.” In other words, accountability relies upon trust rather than control.

A shared challenge for small and medium-sized companies lies in coping with an environment of distrust. Only 43% of employees trust their business leaders and managers, according to Breathe’s Culture Economy Report. On top of that, we need to consider the challenges of remote and hybrid work, which without a proper leadership philosophy, might increase the distrust gap.

A culture rooted in control combined with poor leadership, operational and strategic systems seems to be the worst scenario.

The latter is framed in what Frederic Laloux describes as an impulsive worldview organization  characterized by founder-bosses exerting a top-down authority, getting involved in everything careless of structures or processes, limiting their ability to get things done. The result translates into a high employee turnover, problems to attract and retain talents, and in many cases, burnouts.


Trust: the pathway to accountability

James H. Davis, based on previous research (1) (2), defines trust as “the willingness to be vulnerable and take risks.”

A crucial factor for organizational success lies in building trustful relationships, which depend on unconscious assumptions about people and their motivations. These assumptions frame our willingness to take the risk of trusting others, making us vulnerable. Being vulnerable implies that there is something of importance to be lost.

How we see the world, how we think and feel, what we believe in, what values and attitudes we have – in other words, our mindset – is crucial to understanding the relationships we build up.

Some organizations operate under unconscious assumptions that inevitably lead to control instead of trust. What managers think of their employees often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as underlined by McGregor’s theory of manager x and y. The statements below are just some examples:

  • Passive – if they aren’t watched, they won’t do their work
  • Incapable of making good decisions – that’s why bosses must make them instead
  • Money-driven – they just work for the money and nothing else
  • They need to be told what to do, how, and when – without bosses, there’s no accountability
  • Egotistic – they put their own interests over the organization’s

Reflecting on your assumptions should be the starting point to enact change. However, there is a fundamental question regarding trust: What drives it?


The drivers of trust

There are three main drivers behind Meyer and Davis’ Integrative Model of Organizational Trust.

  1. Ability

Based on the mentioned model, the first driver is ability. It is defined as a group of skills, competencies, and characteristics that enable a party to influence some specific domain. The ability domain is specific because the trustee may be highly competent in some technical area, affording that person trust on tasks related to that area. However, the trustee may have little aptitude, training, or experience in another topic, such as interpersonal communication. Although such an individual may be trusted to do analytical tasks related to his or her technical area, the individual may not be trusted to initiate contact with an important customer. Thus, trust is domain-specific. In a nutshell, we would ask whether that person can do what they say they can do.

Some takeaways regarding activating this critical driver of trust in your leadership system:

  • Know the strengths of your people and build their areas of responsibility around them.
  • Ensure to develop a spirit of continuous learning. Invest in your people and stimulate a co-learning environment.
  • Improve the recruiting process to find suitable matches between the candidates and the position requirements.
  • Create diverse and complementary teams. A successful group always counts with complementary skills.
  • Encourage people to find new ways to solve problems.


  1. Benevolence

“Benevolence is the extent to which a trustee is believed to want to do good to the trustor, aside from an egocentric profit motive.”

Self-reflect whether you care for others and whether you help others even if there is no obvious benefit in doing so. Assess whether behaviors such as care and loyalty are part of your organization’s culture.


  1. Integrity

“The relationship between integrity and trust involves the trustor’s perception that the trustee adheres to a set of principles that the trustor finds acceptable.”

In this sense, it is vital to develop a set of beliefs, actively communicate them and behave accordingly. The latter translates into a leadership system that is built on a common purpose and understanding consisting of shared values, behavior, vision, and mission.


Where does it start?

Trust is a characteristic of a relationship between an individual giving the trust and one or more individuals receiving the trust, or in short, the trustor and the trustee(s). In the organizational setting, most often, the leader or manager assumes the role of the trustor. A widely shared view is that the trustee needs to earn the trust of the trustor. However, in most cases, this approach is doomed to fail: an individual who feels constantly observed and controlled and under the pressure of always doing the right things does not feel safe and will do everything to avoid any risk. Waiting, hesitating, and constantly seeking reassurance will dominate this person’s behavior instead of courage, accountability, and pro-activity.

The initial ignition of a trustful relationship falls in the responsibility of the trustor. Through caring, fair, loyal, and protective behavior, the trustor shapes a motivational climate that encourages and supports the trustee to take action and assume responsibility.

The logical starting point of trust hence is a credit of trust given by the trustor.

Giving credits of trust requires a certain mindset from the trustor: openness, courage, curiosity, and positive expectancy are some critical elements of it. It also requires the willingness to accept occasional failure and the preparedness to invest time with the trustee, clearly aligning mutual expectations.

I personally several times had the honor of receiving credits of trust during my professional career, and I like to share one of these experiences: I had been successfully working as Area Director for a multinational company for several years when I was approached by the CEO to join the European Board to transform the underperforming CSR and Industry Affairs function. I had not much experience in this field. The stakes were enormous: the long-term “license to operate” for the company was under threat, and political pressure on excise put the company’s bottom line at risk of several hundred million Euros.  In a long trustful discussion with the CEO, we shared our mutual expectations, and I had the opportunity to explain my concerns. In the end, he simply said, “I trust you – and if anybody can successfully shape this function, then it’s you.” Carried by this credit of trust, I accepted the challenge. With the CEO role-modeling caring, loyal and protective behavior throughout our full cooperation, I had one of the best and most successful times of my career.

In most cases, this credit of trust turns out to be a successful investment because people payback by taking the initiative and delivering against the agreed expectations. Exceptions, as always, will confirm this rule. However, these exceptions are a small price to be paid compared to the detrimental consequences of waiting for trust to be earned or trying to impose it top-down.

As Stephen M. R. Covey nicely summarised it in The Speed of Trust, “When trust goes down, speed goes down, and cost goes up. The inverse is equally true: When trust goes up, cost goes down, and speed goes up.”

We at Full-potential.com strongly believe that the choice between trust and control does not operate at a rational level. It’s a choice that leaders make based on unconscious assumptions about people and their motivations. If you want to change the corporate mindset toward a more accountable one; first, start by self-reflecting on your assumptions. Only then you can continue this journey with the rest of the leadership team and the whole organization. Are you ready?

If you want to further learn about how to inculcate a trust based leadership over a control one in your organization get in touch with us.