How Do Leaders Hold People Accountable?

By Dr. Mary Kay

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

People have different ideas of what “holding people accountable” means. Some believe it is employee discipline; others simply say, “I’m holding you accountable,” but do little to follow up.

As I have observed leadership qualities associated with accountability, effective leaders create a culture of commitment by defining accountability as making your own Choices and being responsible for your own actions.

Here are four specific steps leaders use to create ownership with team members when they have previously coached them to make better choices and provided management expectations:

Step 1: The Team Member Needs to Recognize That He’s Being Counterproductive.

When approaching an employee to discuss this step, a leader can say something like, “Jerry, up until now, we’ve really been working on getting you to solve your own situations, and we’ve both been very clear about what’s been happening and communicating expectations. Now, it’s your turn to recognize how your actions are affecting others.”

How can you tell if an employee recognizes that he is part of his own problem?

  • First, he has to be able to accept feedback from everyone who’s been trying to work with him.
  • Next, he has to acknowledge that he’s made mistakes, and he has to openly listen to the perceptions of others.
  • Third, he has to take that finger he’s been pointing at everybody else and point it back toward himself.

Step 2: The Team Member Must Accept Responsibility

Jerry has to stop pretending that there’s nothing wrong and look at things he’s done that have prevented him from getting good results.

Instead of complaining about the lack of clarity, what questions could he have been asking? Instead of keeping his ideas to himself, to whom could he have spoken? Instead of trying to do everything himself, what other team member could he have included when planning for a project?

When Jerry is able to tell both sides of the story, this is proof that he is accepting responsibility and that he is choosing to move forward on the steps toward corrective action. If he can’t tell both sides, he is still finger-pointing and blaming others and the next corrective action step to take depends on company policy.

Step 3: Now’s the Time to Focus on Solutions

As the leader, you are not interested in making this team member defend his past actions or try to explain his behavior. Instead, you want to move on and help him move on as well.

For Jerry’s part, he must stay focused on the expectations you have laid out for him and not take things personally or disengage from the conversation. The goal is to move forward in the right direction—and to do so together.

Step 4: Make a Breakthrough

I use the phrase “make a breakthrough” often as it keeps me focused with the intent to help Jerry. However, I can’t want to help Jerry more than Jerry wants to help himself. A leader’s goal is to leave Jerry with the impression that you want him to be proactive and to succeed—but that you also want him to be accountable, to drop the baggage, and to get over past events.

At this point in the conversation, you must write down the commitments and actions you covered, review expectations and talk about future choices and responsibilities. This documented conversation gives Jerry the best chance at either changing his behavior or parting from the company on good terms.

Hopefully, it will be the former; these steps work because you’re not using them to create a wall but rather to open lines of communication and help Jerry get back onto a productive track.

Reactive Managers Hold Sit-Downs

Too often, instead of using these steps, reactive managers hold sit-downs with their “problem” employees and turn the whole thing into management versus team member situations.

Managers take things personally and become biased, and may even hold closed-door meetings with other managers about what to do with Jerry. Employees who sense they are working in such an intense environment may lash out to prove that they can have the last word.

Great leaders handle such situations, like Jerry, differently, with a people-centered approach geared more toward commitment than termination. As a leader, you have the tools available to you to put progressive accountability in place without having to be the enforcer.

Instead, by helping team members make their own choices and accept accountability for those choices, you are telling them they own their problems, not you, and they have the power to solve them.

Here’s a Side Note

If, after implementing Steps 1 – 4 above and Jerry’s performance hasn’t changed, you may have a saboteur on the team. This will become clear when you don’t jump straight to progressive discipline but instead follow the four steps of accountability and provide a chance for the saboteur to hold himself accountable, accept responsibility, and make a renewed commitment to being a part of the team – or not.

How Can Leaders Hold People Accountable?

If you have ideas about holding people accountable that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay is a business leadership strategist, executive coach, trainer, author, and co-founder of the About Leaders community. She’s consulted with hundreds of companies and trained over 30,000 leaders. Her Ultimate Leader Masterclass helps managers become more confident, decisive leaders.
  • Great comments! It is so much easier at time to use the “scolding” approach – which puts you in the parent roll as manager. Adult to adult conversations are spo much better when there is clear choice and clear accountability.

  • Tim Cummuta says:

    Dr. Whitaker do you see where observing non-verbal reactions are important? I have seen over time that even when you are doing it right it is still being received wrong.

    As a second question, what about accountability between peer leaders? Should we still apply these same principals?

  • Dr. Mary Kay Whitaker says:

    Hi Kirk – I completely agree that it takes patience and discipline to stay in the “intent to help” mode. Thanks for your comment.

  • Dr. Mary Kay Whitaker says:

    Hi Tim – Fabulous questions! You ask about non-verbal reactions, I really like Dr. Mehrabian’s statistic that body language is 55%, tone is 38%, and just the words are 7% in a conversation. It’s definitely not what we say but how we say it!

    For your second question I encourage everyone (since we are all leaders by our influence) to implement the accountability steps with peer leaders, family members, home owner association boards, neighbors, bosses, etc. The fun part is that if you don’t get past Step 1 you don’t need to continue. A very nice time saving process!

  • F. E. Starks says:

    Very succinct steps to engage team members in accountability planning!

  • kathy johnston says:

    I believe as a leader you must first lead by example if you are running overtime because you are behind in production or to do scheduled maintenance and the management come in and work on what they are behind in in their offices behind closed door you are going to get minimal by in from your employee. I have seen firsthand what that kind of management does to a work place, if you want your team to go the extra mile they have to see you going the extra mile for them if you are invoking mandatory overtime and this is because you need to meet the needs of your customer then why is it necessary to have management (who need to be there as well) working in the office not contributing to the task at hand .Managers need to be their working side by side on the production floor contributing to the task at hand the task that everyone see not the behind closed doors stuff. I worked in a position that I became a manager several year after I was an everyday regular employee and I promised myself that I would not just close my eyes to the knowledge that I was fortunate enough to have been given working everyday side by side with our staff. I knew what people would rebel against and I knew what people would strive to gain if presented properly. We all talk about (oh learn another language) this will help you in your job and or job search) I believe that this is true there is another language that people have to learn Body language. I am an identical twin and because of this I believe I learned very early on in live the art of knowing what people want by the way there body language speaks to me. If you watch your employee they don’t just stop caring about the company they work for most people don’t look at what they do every day as just a job they come in with the feeling of pride (I am going to make this work ) (oh maybe someday they will promote me) and so and so on. We as managers take that away from them and we do this over time and in a number of ways. If you see you scrap levels increasing and you have depleted all the usual reasons. Too much overtime close to holiday time and bad raw material or parts is not to blame. It is time to start using your body language skills to see what the real reason behind it is. Let’s face it how many times have you as a manager had a very hard working but aggressive male on your line and through in a pretty female to work beside him. Problem solved right we are not supposed to talk about things like this because they are not politically correct, so it is concealed, sugar coated or just not done and the hard working aggressive male is fired. How many times did you wish the that aggressive hard working male was still there the one that came in all the time because he had a family to support worked hard because that is what he was thought to do and did a good job because he was a man and didn’t knew any other way. We as a society have taken all of these quality away from men and women and have made them taboo not to be used only to be discussed behind closed door almost to a point of extinction. It is time to bring them back it is time to start fulfilling everyone needs and desires it is time to get back to basic with our employees and start having work places that when you work there you feel like part of the family what do you think that the most profitable companies are doing( getting back to basics). Really all I have to do to convince you of the truth behind this is to say one word, just one word to convince you of the truth behind everything I have just said and here it is Google.

  • Dr. Mary Kay Whitaker says:

    Hi Kathy – Thanks so much for real life examples of how we as leaders influence our employees by the examples we set, our decision making, and our trust and belief in people. Your feedback is so valuable!

  • The Accountability Conversation that Happens Within a High Performing Team - Awesome Journey says:

    […] Awesome Read:  How Do Leaders Hold People Accountable? […]

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