Own It: Holding Your People Accountable

Holding people accountable. It’s a challenge that isn’t isolated to middle management or new leaders. Executives at the highest levels also fall into the lull of hoping someone’s non-performance will just go away and  improve on its own.

When I see an environment where people are not held accountable I have no option but to look to the highest leader. You see, accountability isn’t just a leader trait. It’s a culture trait. Accountability is part of our environment. It lives with gusto or it hangs out on the sidelines as a weak link to performance.

Accountability is not an adverse principle.

Last week I overheard a client saying to her managers that she understood how the act of accountability was a hard thing to do and that people don’t like it. Something about that statement bothered me. What is so wrong about me being able to “count” on someone to do what we have agreed to do?

Here are six factors that cause a leader, or in this case a company culture, to not hold others accountable:

  • Fear – Fear of conflict, fear of the person leaving, fear of not being liked, fear of possible debate, fear of not having the answers or solutions, fear of coaching, fear of hurting feelings, fear of being Negative Nelly, fear of helping others grow, fear of dealing with excuses…
  • Unclear expectations – Not knowing what to hold the person accountable to; the first step of holding someone accountable is knowing what we need to count on them to do.
  • Time and focus – “There are other things I’m responsible for and I don’t have time to hold others accountable.” If you’re a leader in an organization, how do you not have time to lead?
  • A belief that it will fix itself – Everyone needs accountability
  • Peer pressure – Contests and friendly competitions work best in an environment where accountability thrives.
  • Playing favorites – If you hold Johnny accountable then yes, you’ll have to hold your favorite teammate Jill accountable too.

Questions to ask when having an accountability conversation

If you struggle with holding those you lead accountable, here are some simple questions to help you get the conversation going:

“Tell me why you are struggling not meeting expectations?” This question reinforces the expectations and it allows the person – not you – to provide solutions.

“At your current pace I’m afraid you won’t be successful. Do you feel differently?” This question shows your firmness in a very classy way. It also allows the person to face the facts that their results won’t improve if their pace or performance doesn’t change.

“Do you think this is a skill-set issue or an energy level issue?” This question forces the person to be self-aware about their lack of performance. Are they incapable of performing or are they just lazy and taking advantage of a weak accountability culture?

I truly care about your success because each of us impacts the success of the team. I’d like you to be accountable for __________. When can I expect you to meet these expectations for the team?” This question helps them see they may be the weak link on the team. If your expectations are activity-based then you should expect an immediate improvement. If expectations are results-based then know that it may take some time for the right activity to change results.

Remember, if your people are not meeting expectations, you as a leader must look in the mirror. You are not meeting expectations, either. Gain clarity and own it.


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