People have different ideas of what “accountability” 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 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 a management versus team member situation.

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 a 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 Handle Accountability?

If you have ideas you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay is a business leadership strategist, executive coach, trainer, author, and founder of the About Leaders community. She’s consulted with hundreds of companies and trained thousands of leaders. Her Ultimate Leader Success course helps managers become more confident, decisive leaders. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.