How to hold people accountable as a leader

Having to hold people accountable is never a fun conversation to have as a leader. It can feel uncomfortable and awkward for everybody involved. If you learn to do it well, though, you can make the conversations less challenging for you and ensure your team has the useful feedback that they need to succeed.

So, when you have an employee that needs to adjust their behaviour, how do you approach the conversation to preserve trust and increase the chance that the behaviours change? Here are some important things to keep in mind.

Stick to the facts

First, you will want to ensure that you stick to the facts of the situation. When you’re providing feedback on behaviour, focus on the objectively observable behaviour itself and don’t bring your perceptions or interpretations into it. It’s natural to form beliefs based on what you observe, but it’s not helpful for the conversation.

So, as an example, instead of saying “You don’t respect the team because you’re always showing up late,” say “You were 30 minutes late today and two times last week as well.”

The first option includes a judgement about their reason for being late and uses a generality. The second simply states specific facts without any judgement.

Explain why it matters

Next, you should explain to them how their behaviour impacts you, the team, or the organization. This will help them to understand why you’re asking them to change. It can be difficult to buy into a requested change if we don’t see the value of it, so, assuming you’re talking to someone who is reasonable, providing this information can help to create an impetus for the change.

But still, stick to the facts. Don’t say “You being late is going to destroy the company,” since that’s debatable. Instead, say something factual like “When you’re late, the team has to cover for you and they can’t get their work done.”

Clarify expectations and consequences

Finally, be clear on the behaviour you would like to see instead and the consequences if the behaviour doesn’t change. It may seem obvious, but it’s best to be explicit. What feels obvious to one person is not necessarily obvious to another.

Behaviour requests should be specific and should be something you can measure. Any consequences you identify should be something you are willing to follow through on if the behaviour doesn’t change.

So, avoid things like “You need to improve your attitude or you’re fired.” In this case, the behaviour change is vague — what does an improved attitude look like? — and you may not be willing or able to follow through on the consequence. Instead, something like “I need you to arrive at work right at 9am from now on or I will remove you from the project you’re working on” may be more appropriate.

Ensure understanding

And of course, before leaving the conversation, you will want to ensure that the person is clear on what you’re asking them to change. If you’ve kept to the facts, there shouldn’t be disagreement about what the behaviour was, but you do want to ensure that they understand and agree to the change so that you can hold them accountable if it doesn’t occur.

Other things to consider

Doing this isn’t easy and there are a few common pitfalls you’ll want to avoid.

New leaders sometimes try to “soften the blow” when having these sorts of conversations with their team members, but remember that clear is kind. When you talk around an issue and avoid presenting the problem behaviour clearly and concisely, your people may leave these conversations feeling confused and frustrated. If they aren’t able to figure out what you’re asking them to do, they won’t be able to make the change you want, and you’ll end up right back here again.

Also ensure you’re focused on the behaviour and not the person. We all find it easier to accept feedback about things that we can change rather than about who we are as a person. If you are presenting that the person is somehow bad or deficient, you likely won’t see the behaviour change you’re looking for. Instead, focus on the specific actions that they’re taking and how you’d like them to change.

Finally, be patient with yourself. None of us enjoys having these conversations, but with focused effort and practice, you can make them productive and less frequent.

Need help planning for a conversation with a team member? Coaching can help you work through what you want to say and come up with a strategy for approaching the person. Contact me to learn how I can support you to approach challenging conversations with your team with confidence and compassion.

Tl;dr? Watch this short video instead.

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