Every leader needs to do it, but most leaders don’t like to do it. The “it” is holding people accountable. Why don’t leaders like to do it? Simply put, because it feels uncomfortable. Confronting less-than-acceptable performance or conduct can create tension. The conversation can get emotional. It can deteriorate into conflict.
So what do many leaders do instead? They avoid it by rationalizing to themselves:
- “Maybe things will improve over time.” Improve over time? Without any impetus to improve? Don’t bet on it.
- “But if I let the employee go, I’ll never find a replacement.” Never? That’s a long time. Sure, it may take a while, but you’ll find a replacement.
- “What if we find a new role for the employee?” Is it a legitimate role they’re well suited for? Or are you hiding them in the Incompetence Protection Program hoping no one will find them? Because if you are, you can wave your credibility goodbye.
It’s time for a reset. It’s time to change how we think about accountability.
The Right Mindset
Why should we hold our team members accountable? The purpose isn’t to be destructive. It’s not to berate, belittle, or bully people. The purpose is constructive. It’s to help team members improve, grow, achieve, and succeed. Call it “constructive accountability.” Not only should we hold people constructively accountable, but we should want to hold them constructively accountable. Because if we don’t, we cheat them out of the opportunity to improve. And we demoralize everyone else on the team who sees what we’re willing to tolerate. As a result, the organization suffers and we fail our mandate as leaders.
The Constructive Accountability Conversation
How do we hold team members constructively accountable? Imagine you have a manager whose branch isn’t meeting performance expectations. Here’s a roadmap, a five-step process for the constructive accountability conversation:
- Convey the common purpose
Set the stage by reminding the manager that you’re allies, not adversaries. You’re on the same team; your goals are aligned.
“Jasmine, I know you’re committed to achieving your branch’s margin goals. That will help us meet our company goals. If we do that, all of us will benefit financially.”
- Confront reality
Introduce your concern in a curious, not a judgmental, way. Engage the person in identifying contributing factors and root causes. Be calm and direct. Make it a collegial conversation.
“Jasmine, your branch has missed its margin goal by 5 percent each of the last three months. Let’s talk about what’s happening and why, so we can come to a solid understanding of what’s underlying these results.”
- You take responsibility
This is counterintuitive, but it’s the key to a successful conversation. Ask what you can do to provide support. It disarms the person and opens the door to having a real conversation about improvement. And it reinforces that you’re on the same team.
“Now that we understand why we’re not hitting our targets, how can I support you? What do you need from me?
If she identifies a legitimate way you can help, then commit to taking action.
“You’re saying that if we provide your team members with process improvement training, then you can work with them to capture the efficiencies we need. I like it. Let me arrange that.”
On the other hand, if she asks for things you think are irrelevant, then don’t feel obligated to agree with her.
“Jasmine, I’m not convinced we need to make that investment. The other branches are able to hit their margin targets without us doing that.”
- Discuss solutions; convey clear expectations
Once you’ve determined what you can do to support her, have her lead the discussion about what she can do to drive improvement. Then provide specific, reasonable, and time-linked expectations for the outcome you want.
“Jasmine, that sounds like a strong course of action. Given that, my expectation is that your branch will be hitting its margin target within 90 days.”
- Rigorously follow up
Before you end the conversation, lock in your next “check-in” meeting. This lets the person know change is mandatory, not optional. Do this at each subsequent meeting until the issue is resolved. Encourage her. Let her know you believe in her, and thank her for her commitment.
“Let’s block in our next meeting no more than 15 minutes—so we can monitor how things are progressing. How does two weeks from today at 10 a.m. look?
“Jasmine, I believe in you. I know you can get things back on track. Thanks for your commitment.”
Unsurprisingly, this five-step constructive accountability conversation is a more effective process for addressing performance or conduct issues. And more likely to produce the results you want.
The First Person to Hold Constructively Accountable
Who does constructive accountability start with? Take a look in the mirror. Ask yourself, “Have I avoided holding team members accountable because of my discomfort? Has that held back our team’s performance?” If the answer is, “Yes,” then you know where to start. Start by holding yourself constructively accountable.
Most leaders struggle with holding people accountable because it’s uncomfortable. Reframe your thinking. As a leader, commit to holding your team members constructively accountable. Doing so will help them succeed. It will help your organization succeed. And when your team members and your organization succeed, you succeed.