Would you like to have a constructive accountability conversation with an employee, a conversation that won’t deteriorate and go off the rails? Follow this 5-step process and don’t be surprised if the tone and outcomes of the conversation change how you think and feel about holding employees accountable.

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Step 1. You start by establishing a common purpose to make clear that you and the employee are on the same team. That you’re allies, not adversaries. The goal is to put the employee at ease, to have them lower their guard. For example:

“John, I know you’re committed to achieving your departmental goals which of course will help us achieve our company goals.”

Step 2. Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t feel you have to “soften the blow” by starting with (soon-to-be-forgotten) praise. The employee will see through both of these and think that you’re insincere or lacking in courage. Simply state the reality as objectively and dispassionately as possible.

“John, in reviewing the numbers I’ve noticed that your department has been missing plan by 20% each of the past 3 months. Let’s talk about what’s going on and why.”

You’re not saying John’s a bad person, you’re not saying you don’t like him, you’re not saying you’re judging him. What you’re saying is that some element of performance, conduct or results is not meeting expectations. And you want the two of you to discuss it, as colleagues, to better understand what’s happening and why.

Step 3. Although it’s counter-intuitive, the next thing you should do is take responsibility. It changes the dynamic of the conversation for the better when, before talking about what he needs to do, you offer your support. Why? Because he’s expecting you to “attack” which means he has to “defend.” Instead, by taking responsibility, you’re reaffirming the common purpose and taking away his need to be defensive.

“John, as your manager, I want to make sure I’m supporting you so that you can be successful in your job. How can I help you? What do you need from me?”

Doing this opens the door to having a real conversation about performance, which is what you want. However, don’t be surprised if some employees roll out a list of excuses about what they need to be successful. Here’s the good news: you get to decide. And it’s okay to disagree if you’re not convinced that meeting their request would be useful or is feasible. But maybe there is something legitimate you should be doing. Asking the question gives the employee the opportunity to make you aware of it.

Step 4. Once you’ve decided what, if anything, you need to do, it’s time to state clear expectations. The big mistake we often make is we give them fuzzy expectations. Well, fuzzy expectations lead to fuzzy outcomes. Not good. Clear expectations mean what do you expect by when.

“John, my expectation is that your department will be back on plan within 90 days.”

Then, it’s helpful to discuss what the employee could and will do differently to meet those expectations. Finally, have the employee confirm that they understand your expectations.

Step 5. Everything you’ve done to this point will be a waste unless you follow-up rigorously.

“John, you know my expectation for 90 days. But let’s meet every couple of weeks to keep a spotlight on this. To make sure things are moving in the right direction and to talk about any new obstacles as they come up.”

Schedule the follow-ups, get them locked in your calendar, and make them happen. Yes, it takes time and energy, but if you’re serious about change then the follow-up is absolutely critical.

Five steps. A more effective accountability conversation. And you’ll be a more effective leader.

Make it happen.


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