Time to stop dreading... holding people accountable

There’s a truth that experienced managers know: problems do not get better on their own. In fact, they tend to get worse. 

This is especially true when it comes to holding people accountable. The longer you don’t do it, the harder it becomes when you do. And yet, for many managers, it remains a challenge. This is often due to a lack of language and tools.

If you’re in this boat, read on: we’ll help you gain the confidence you need.

holding people accountable

Holding people accountable: the golden rule above all

You hold someone accountable to something – a reference point that is measurable.

Without this agreed reference point, you cannot hold them accountable.

This reference point can be many things, such as:

  1. Increase sales by 20%

  2. Arrive at work by 8:30

  3. Send a weekly report of tasks completed that week by Friday at 4pm

The critical thing is that there is a reference point and that it was agreed that the person was accountable for the outcome.

If these two things are not in place, you can’t hold someone accountable. It’s as simple as that.

Now you understand the golden rule. What do you then need to do to hold staff accountable?

1) Create your reference points, then live and breathe them

You should be setting – and reviewing – individual and team KPIs on a regular basis.

Performance should always be measured. What isn’t measured, after all, can’t be managed.

Reference points are not just about task performance, but behaviour and culture.

What are the working hours? What is the dress code?

Is social media use acceptable during work hours?

2) Know how to create a reference point when you don’t have one

The golden rule can’t be broken – but it must be bent occasionally.

This happens when you need to hold someone accountable, but you don’t have an agreed-upon reference point.

In this case, you create a reference point ‘live’ with them and set your expectations accordingly.

These situations typically arise in response to negative behaviours that must be tackled immediately and have no precedent, rather than targets and KPIs.

3) Never delay the tough conversation – it only gets harder

Every time you let someone get away with not being held accountable, you lose a bit of legitimacy when you finally have the conversation.

Because what you’re doing is sending the message that a behaviour or action is ok with you.

And then telling them that, actually, it’s not ok.

Which sends mixed messages and makes it much harder to justify yourself.

4) Learn the language of holding people accountable

New managers dilute their language: “It might be easier if you didn’t do that.”

It feels like you’re being kind. But you’re being unclear. And you’re not actually telling the person they have to correct their behaviour.

A manager I knew used phrases like “It’s not ok to…,“ “It’s not acceptable to…,” and “It’s not cool to…” – all are clear and unambiguous but not aggressive.

You could borrow this approach – or find your own language. But you must be clear that you are holding the person accountable.

5) You must believe holding people accountable is the right thing to do

New managers hate holding people accountable. They feel like they’re being mean or misusing their authority.

Experienced managers realise that holding people accountable is not only necessary to be effective in your role but actually the best thing you can do for everyone involved.

Once this clicks into place, it feels so much more natural to hold people accountable and you stop feeling like the bad guy.

And the best way to develop the mindset is to understand why not holding people accountable is destructive and, conversely, why holding people accountable is beneficial.

So, what happens when you don’t hold people accountable in the workplace?

  • You normalise unacceptable behaviours: poor behaviour quickly becomes the norm when it stays unchecked. And when poor behaviour is normalised for long enough, it becomes an entrenched part of your culture

  • You penalise high performers: it’s disengaging to work hard and see others get away with dragging their feet. Not holding people accountable breeds resentment and can lead to your best people walking out the door

  • You destroy trust: if you set standards then never enforce them, how can people trust that your actions will be consistent or that you’ll do what you say you’ll do?

And what happens when you do hold people accountable at work?

  • You improve wellbeing: clarity is important to humans. We like to know our place in the world. When you hold people accountable, they know where they stand

  • You nurture trust: holding people accountable means that you are doing what you’ve said you’ll do – and this consistency builds trust

  • You improve performance: holding people accountable normalises high expectations and high performance and ensures everyone is focused on achieving their KPIs

  • You improve team dynamics: fairness and equality are critical to team health and performance. Holding people accountable – even if they have different KPIs – creates a level playing field and the right conditions for team unity

Do you consider yourself an ‘accidental manager?’ If so, you can feel like you never got the support you needed to grow into your role. Take a look at the behaviours you need to get right to be effective.