Holding Leaders Accountable: When Does it Work?

Topic(s): leadership, teams
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (Online first publication, 2013)
Article: Team-Oriented Leadership: The Interactive Effects of Leader Group
Authors: S.R. Giessner, D. van Knippenberg, W. van Ginkel, E. Sleebos
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

We can all agree that leaders are more effective when they engage in behavior that benefits the team, instead of self-serving behavior that benefits nobody but themselves. How do we inspire the leadership behavior that we desire? One popular way to curb self-serving leadership behavior is by increasing accountability, or the extent to which leaders will have their actions made public, and will be required to stand behind these actions. New research (Giessner, van Knippenberg, van Ginkel, & Sleebos, 2013) shows that this approach may lead to mixed results.


The researchers conducted two experiments, one lab study and one field study, and concluded that accountability is more likely to lead to team-benefiting behavior when the leaders do not fit the organization’s prototype. This means that the characteristics that define the group are noticeably different from the characteristics of the leader. This situation makes leaders feel insecure. In order to counter this insecurity, leaders are motivated to behave in ways that benefit the group, especially when they are held accountable for their actions.

However, when leaders fit the group prototype, or group characteristics are similar to leader characteristics, leaders feel more secure with their standing and do not feel a strong need to compensate with team-benefiting behavior. In this situation, accountability for actions has little effect on whether or not leaders will actually engage in team-benefiting behavior.


Further, while the researchers found that accountability may influence non-prototypical leaders to engage in team-benefiting behavior, they also found that this happens more specifically when leaders identify with and consider themselves a member of the team. This is a different consideration from whether or not a leader fits the group prototype. Leaders can identify with and feel part of a team whether or not they fit the group prototype.

What does this mean for us? When we come across leaders who do not fit the group prototype, holding them accountable may be a way of encouraging these leaders to engage in team-benefiting behavior. Still, we need to make sure that these leaders are first able to identify with the team. The authors say that organizations should encourage leaders to view themselves as team-members as well as team-leaders.


Giessner, S. R., van Knippenberg, D., van Ginkel, W., & Sleebos, E. (2013). Team-oriented leadership: The interactive effects of leader group prototypicality, accountability, and team identification. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(4), 658-667.