How to Hold People Accountable

How to Hold People Accountable (Weed the Garden)

Question: Do you know the most common regret expressed by business leaders?

Answer: They wish they had dealt with poor performance sooner.

Giving positive feedback is relatively simple; although most managers don’t recognize and praise their people frequently enough. Giving negative feedback, on the other hand, is something many managers procrastinate on.

I can empathize. Some of the more stressful moments of my early management career were when I had to give corrective feedback to staff members whose results or behaviors were below the agreed standard. Either they weren’t getting agreed Projects and Tasks done on time, or they weren’t hitting the agreed Metrics (Key Performance Indicator) performance standards, or their behaviors were not aligned to our Core Values.

Although I knew it was core to my role as manager to hold people accountable and provide corrective feedback, I would typically lose sleep the night before; ruminating about what I needed to say, how I needed to say it, and running through different scenarios of how the conversation might unfold.

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened” (Mark Twain)

The feedback conversations typically turned out to be far less confrontational than I imagined they would be. I soon learned that shining a spotlight on issues and discussing them in a constructive manner, as soon as they become apparent, is always preferable to pretending that performance problems don’t exist or hoping they would fix themselves. (Hint: performance problems don’t fix themselves).

Corrective feedback is the key to higher performance.

I think back to the times when people made the effort to give me corrective feedback. Sometimes it was a manager, sometimes it was a coach, sometimes it was one of my team. By nature, I am much more task-focused than people-focused, and early in my management career I was given feedback that my default behavioral style came across as being “all work and no play” and somewhat uncaring. Ouch!

I can be sensitive to criticism (aren’t we all?), and hated receiving this feedback at the time, but given a day or two to process the information I realized that I was being given the gift to see myself as others saw me. With these insights, I could make conscious choices to modify my behavior, and ever since, have taken steps to spend more time connecting with people and demonstrating that I appreciate them.

We all like to receive praise, but often it is negative (or corrective) feedback that proves to be more valuable for our personal and professional development.

Here are some of the key practices I have found helpful when holding people accountable and giving critical feedback:

Shine the spotlight on performance.

The goal of feedback is to shine a spotlight on the issue to raise the person’s awareness of how their results or behaviors are impacting their performance.

Making performance visible on a dashboard is a good first step, but a software tool is not going to manage your people for you. Managers still need to manage. You must meet with your people to discuss their performance and follow up to make sure things are getting done every week. Dashboards don’t absolve the manager of their obligation to coach and support their people.

If Projects and Tasks are not getting done on time, or agreed Metrics (KPI) performance standards are not being achieved by one of your team members, you need to shine a spotlight on the issue and hold people accountable for achieving the agreed standards.

Similarly, if someone is behaving contrary to the spirit of your organization’s Core Values, you need to take them aside and discuss how their behaviors come across to others, and how their actions affect other people.

Weed the garden.

Letting people off the hook without discussing poor performance is like letting weeds grow in your garden. If you don’t pull the weeds out quickly, the weeds will quickly take over your garden and choke the growth of your crops. Weeds aren’t going to remove themselves, but they are much easier to deal with when they are still small and there aren’t too many.

Below standard performance isn’t going to fix itself either, but problems are much easier to fix if you nip them in the bud when you first observe them; before it becomes the norm. 

Just the facts.

When providing feedback, present the observable facts and share how you feel about the issue, but do not label or judge the person. Don’t assume you understand the intent behind their actions either. If you are angry, wait until you have your emotions in check. Calmly assume the role of a “supportive coach”. Always remember that your #1 job as a manager is to coach and support your team members to perform to their full potential.

  • Incorrect: “You’re not working hard enough Bob”
  • Better: “I see your customer appointments Metric was “in the red” last week. This is the 2nd week in a row. What’s happening here, Bob?
  • Incorrect: “You disrespected Suzy in that meeting Bob”
  • Better: “Hey Bob, I observed you typing on your phone on 3 separate occasions during Suzy’s training session today. I got the feeling that you weren’t interested in what she had to say. What’s happening here, Bob?

You want your description of the facts to be accurate so that the only option Bob has is to agree with the facts and then provide his interpretation of what happened.

Hold people accountable with my 3 question coaching sequence:

The first key question I always ask is always some variant of:

1.”What’s happening here?”

Listen to understand. There may be a valid reason for Bob’s appointment numbers being “in the red” for the last 2 weeks, or there may have been a genuine urgent need for Bob to use his phone to communicate during Suzy’s training session. Make sure you hear him out. 

If however, you mutually agree that Bob’s performance or behavior was below the required standard, then it’s time to ask coaching questions e.g.

2.”What 1 thing can we do this week to improve this?”

Let Bob come up with solutions first. Then suggest others. Work together to come up with at least one tangible action, and capture it as a Task. Follow up next week to make sure the Task(s) got done, and assess the impact on Bob’s performance.

3.”What support do you need?”

Make it clear that you are on Bob’s side and that your role is to support your team members to be successful.

Don’t assume that providing feedback and holding people accountable is a one-time event. You must follow up to ensure the agreed actions have been implemented and that performance has improved. You must keep providing feedback in this exact same manner every week until a sustainable long-term change has taken place.

Coaching outcomes.

If the person achieves the agreed performance standard, praise and acknowledge their efforts. Let them know that they are doing a good job and that you appreciate their contribution, and do this every week.

If however they are habitually falling short, and can’t make the necessary improvements within an agreed time frame, then it is your role as a manager to do something about it. Using the “manager as coach” analogy, you only win when your team succeeds. Your job as a manager is to recruit, train, coach and support a team of winning players.

If someone is unable to perform on your team, you either:

  • Coach them to meet the standard, or
  • Find them a new position where they can meet the standard, or
  • You owe it to the rest of the team to remove them from the field.

You do want a winning team, don’t you?

Being a manager (coach) means holding people accountable and giving them corrective feedback on their performance. If you aren’t comfortable with this, then you should not be managing people. When I look at my business coaching clients, the most effective managers I see are those who apply consistent pressure. They are firm but fair. And they keep their garden weed-free!

Who has held you accountable?

Think about the best managers, best teachers, or the best coaches you’ve had in your life. Chances are, they were the ones who held you accountable and confronted you whenever your results or behaviors were below the standard they believed you were capable of.

You may not have liked what they said at the time, but thinking back, it was exactly what you needed to hear. Yes, they were tough on you, but you knew they had your best interests at heart. They genuinely cared about your growth and development. They changed your life for the better.

Perhaps you can fulfill that role in someone’s life too?


Until next time…