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3 proven tools for holding people accountable

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I've been doing a lot of leadership training recently, from companies ranging from regional powerhouses to international businesses with multiple locations on multiple continents. Regardless of the size of the company and the experience of the leader, one question seems to come up everywhere I go:

How do we hold people accountable more effectively?

In my experience, a lot of leaders talk about holding people accountable but struggle with the execution. When they get in the moment, they don't deliver in a way as clear as they rehearsed (or as they remember). They deliver the feedback, and most of the time, end up frustrated again because they don't see the change they were expecting.

Holding people accountable is tough.

With a little bit of practice, though, I've seen nearly every leader I've worked with get better. The key is developing the skills to manage your anxiety and nerves while mastering a few key techniques or phrases that make the whole process easier.

The challenge of holding people accountable

It's uncomfortable to have to give tough feedback and hold people accountable.

Even if you consider yourself direct and tough-minded, you're a human like the rest of us. We all evolved to regulate each other's nervous system, so anything we do that we know is going to disturb someone else's peace of mind is bound to knock us off our game (at least a little bit).

We can anticipate that holding people accountable is going to be dysregulating. Nobody likes being told they haven't met the standard, and that there's more work to do to reach the required level. As we lead into delivering that news, we often start to plan for how they'll respond, knowing this (likely) poor response is coming. We end up in our own heads, problem-solving situations that we predict but haven't encountered.

All of that is normal.

The second piece that makes accountability difficult is determining what will get them to change.

When we want to deliver difficult feedback and hold the standard, it's tough to figure out what will work to elicit the behavior we want to see. Because that's obscured, we tend to resort to punishment - a tool that works well in the short-term, but over time loses its effects. When we use punishment as a tool, people learn what to avoid rather than what's right to do.

This leads to the person being held accountable being skeptical of the feedback and meaning behind it. It ends up undermining the deliverer, too, since the link between the punishment and the desired behavior is unclear.

The result is a resentful performer and disappointed leader.

Ask them how

Fortunately, there are a few good tools you can use to overcome that discomfort and make sure the accountability mechanism fits the miss.

The first, and my favorite, is to simply ask, "When you do make a mistake or miss the mark, how would you like me to hold you accountable?"

This question does a few important things:

  • It normalizes that mistakes are part of performing

  • It gives you the answer to the test as far as what to do when a mistake happens

  • It aligns you and your performer on what's fair as a form of accountability

This eases the pressure off of you as a leader to figure out how to do it. And, the question frees you up to focus on what matters, which is monitoring performance as it unfolds and giving feedback in the moment, before it's too late.

The result is simplified performance management and better engagement from your team.

Explain why you're giving the feedback

Half of the battle of holding someone accountable is establishing a common ground about what both parties want: improved performance. 

The second tool you can use gives you just that.

Accountability happens because we believe the person is capable. But we don't typically start there. Instead, we launch in with what we want fixed, and move on quickly.

Adam Grant gives us a 19-word formula we can use to position the feedback and accountability properly, so it resonates and reorients your performer toward what's most important - changing and meeting expectations.

You can find that formula here:

What this feedback does is reorient your team members toward the confidence you have in them and the reality that they aren't currently meeting expectations. It also makes them more receptive to what you're about to say, which makes it more likely they'll internalize what needs to change. They may not enjoy getting the feedback completely, but this approach makes it more palatable in the moment.

After you've delivered the context for the message, the rest should be as direct and clear as possible. Focus on the behaviors you want them to change and how the change will lead to the right outcomes.

Remember you're doing them a favor

This last tool is useful when the biggest obstacle to holding people accountable is between your ears.

I see this a lot with younger leaders in particular who are afraid to ruffle feathers, but it happens at all levels of organizations. The very act of delivering tough feedback gets us in our heads. We start to think about all that could go wrong or how uncomfortable it is going to be. Even worse, if we like the person, we start feeling like we're going to damage a relationship.

All that fear is coming from a place of concern that we are hurting someone, instead of seeing it for what it is.


You are doing this person a favor by being honest. If they don't know what's going on, how can anyone reasonably expect them to get better?

This reframe can make it a little bit easier to move through the discomfort and align the accountability with your values. If you value helping and caring for others, seeing accountability through this lens matches up very well with that approach. You want to come to accountability from a place of compassion and collaboration, and this repositioning in your mind helps make that a little bit easier.

Holding people accountable is challenging, but it doesn't have to be paralyzing. You can use any of these tools to make it easier to hold people accountable and make it more effective. Ultimately, good leadership is about being able to hold people to a high standard and help them reach it.

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