A common challenge amongst many of the people I work with is how to hold people accountable. Whether it’s due to avoiding conflict, not having the right skills, or not wanting to make the effort, holding people (including ourselves) accountable can be hard! Accountability is the last line of defense to ensure that actions are taken and changes are supported. Therefore, learning how to hold people accountable is a must for success.

Accountability Is Not a Dirty Word

Holding people accountable means accepting responsibility for their actions. Unfortunately, we sometimes view this as a form of punishment, being too harsh, or micromanaging. Although in some cases people go to these extremes, this is not accountability. Instead, it literally is punishing, being too harsh, or micromanaging. Unfortunately, people then may react and flip to the other end of the spectrum, which looks like being too lax or simply checking out. Whichever strategy we choose, the results are the same:

  • Tasks don’t get completed
  • Agreements aren’t honored
  • Items fall through the cracks
  • Trust gets broken
  • Commitments become empty, meaningless words
  • Credibility is shaken
  • People can’t depend on other people

Accountability means either making sure that we do what we say we’re going to do, or what we should be doing based on agreements that have already been established. If we need to be able to accomplish work, move towards goals, and build trust, accountability isn’t an option – it’s a must-have.

Learning the Language of Accountability

Interestingly, many of us never learned how to hold people accountable. Instead, we observed behaviors such as badgering, belittling, shaming, punishing, or imposing rules for the sake of rules as examples of accountability. Or, we may have seen behaviors such as making excuses, shying away from aspirations, goals, or dreams, avoiding commitments, dropping the ball, or tolerating mediocrity. Regardless of which end of the spectrum you move towards, neither is effective. Typical examples of these behaviors that I observe in my clients include:

  • Pestering people over and over again around actions they haven’t completed
  • Failing to set standards and expectations, or setting them without any follow-up
  • Taking steps towards reaching an agreement, then giving up when met with resistance
  • Passing off difficult situations or people and making them other people’s problems
  • Making wishy-washy commitments without any plan of action
  • Continually saying things like “we’ll get to it later,” and then never getting to it
  • Making lofty or pseudo-spiritual statements like “it’s all good”, “just trust the flow”, or “it’ll all work out”
  • Moving quickly to disciplinary actions or firing people

The problem with this language is that it doesn’t get results. Instead, we need to learn a new language that supports success, change, and results. Three pillars of this language? Clarity, persistence, and coaching.

Three Pillars of Accountability

Let’s look at three core pillars that you can use to hold people accountable:

Clarity: In order to hold people accountable, both you and they need to understand exactly what the agreement is. This includes elements such as being time-bound, detailed, and behavior-specific. In other words, what exactly should the person do, what does it look like, and when should they have it completed? Both you and they need to be on the same page of understanding and, as a leader, you need to have a way of confirming their understanding of your expectations.

The second part of clarity is getting clear agreement. Someone else may understand what you want, but understanding doesn’t equal agreement. Ultimately, anything less than a clear “yes” or “no” is not agreement. And, if it’s anything less then a “yes,” you’ll need to go deeper into the other two pillars to get clarity.

Persistence: A clear “yes” isn’t enough. Many a “yes” has been spoken, only to be never revisited again. We need to follow-up around the agreement. Ideally, you’ll establish a plan for follow-up up front, but there needs to be some kind of ongoing check-in to see how things are going, offer support, and course-correct as needed. Unfortunately, many people don’t make these agreements and then resort to pestering and micro-managing. Instead, work out a plan for ongoing check-ins that supports both of you.

You’ll also need to use persistence when you hear anything less than a clear “yes.” I often tell clients that they need to make the other person either say “yes” or “no,” but nothing in between. You don’t have to be a jerk about it – you just need to stay engaged in the conversation for as long as it takes. Staying with questions like, “When will you complete this?”, “Will you do x?”, and “What exactly will you agree to?” will help get that clarity from the first pillar. Or, simply restating the agreement and asking directly, “Will you agree to this?”

When you persist, people will squirm, evade, avoid, and talk in circles. You may have to repeat these questions several times until you get an answer. It’s your job to stay engaged until you get the clear “yes” or “no.”

Coaching: Two of people’s biggest obstacles around accountability are either lack of motivation or lack of skill. As leaders, it’s our job to help people move past these obstacles. Sometimes people do say yes and then get stuck. Other times, they need help in order to get to yes because they don’t understand the “why,” lack confidence, or need support.

As a leader, you’ll need to diagnose what the obstacle is and then work with the person to move past it. This could involve focusing on potential benefits to following through, providing tools for learning, or just offering ongoing support.

There are often deeper reasons behind people’s inability or unwillingness to be accountable. When we can uncover those reasons and find a way forward, accountability not only becomes easier, it becomes more meaningful.

Practicing Accountability

Applying these pillars requires you to practice them yourself around the topic of accountability. You’ll need to become clear on how you’d like to hold people accountable, establish a plan and stick to it, and move past your own obstacles. Here are some questions to assist you:

  • What are some potential benefits to holding people accountable?
  • What are your challenges around holding people accountable?
  • What do you need to move past those challenges?
  • Which of the three pillars would be most helpful to practice, and how can you practice it?
  • What support do you need around practicing accountability?

Again, these ideas don’t just apply to holding others accountable – they also work for holding yourself accountable. Whether you want to lose weight, complete a project, or achieve a dream, the principles still apply. For additional support, share your experiences in the comments below!