CG #60 – How to Hold Someone Accountable

It’s tempting to think accountability depends on the other person and their skills.  Nope.  It depends on you.

Reading Time:  3 minutes

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Let’s say you’ve got someone who is missing deadlines or turning in work that isn’t up to snuff.  Let’s say you’ve given them feedback about what’s right and carefully explained what needs to change about their work.  You’ve offered more training and sat with them to show them what to do.

And, although there may be slight improvement, it isn’t enough.  You dread spending more time for such a feeble result.

Trust that feeling. 

The cardinal rule of accountability is to stop working harder than they are.

Who is putting in more time, energy and worry?  If it isn’t the person who is responsible for the work, accountability is in the wrong place.  Believing if you just show them one more time, if you just do this one more thing for them is a big part of the problem.

Either someone can do that job or they can’t.  If they can do it, but aren’t doing it, then doing it for them won’t close the gap between them and successful job performance.  Like a baby bird, they’ve got to peck their way out of the shell to get strong enough for the challenges of life.  Doing it for them weakens them. 

Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine about how to teach a baby to sleep through the night.  Holding someone accountable is a lot like that.  Assuming they aren’t hungry and don’t need to be changed, you’ve got three choices when your newborn starts screaming in their crib:

  • Ignore them and hope they stop crying on their own (the equivalent of leaving your employee without any guidance and hoping they get it)
  • Rush in and pick them up (the equivalent of doing someone’s work for them or working harder than they are)
  • Rub their back and speak softly to them, then leave. (the equivalent of letting your employees know you care, that there are standards, and that you are confident they can fulfill them)

Letting the baby know you are nearby and rubbing their back eases his terror.  Not picking him up holds him accountable for soothing himself back to sleep, a necessary life skill.

Your employee needs to know you are nearby, and that you care, both about them and the work.  They also need to know that you have confidence they can figure out how to meet the job standards, which remain high.  Holding people accountable is holding a clear expectation of performance without abandoning them or doing it for them when they miss.

So if holding people accountable isn’t doing the work for them, or ignoring them when they don’t perform, or giving feedback or a pep talk or explaining it one more time or sending them to another training, what is it?

Holding people accountable is staying in your own business and out of theirs.

Instead of being an expert in the other person – why they might be failing, what they might need – you need to be an expert on yourself.  Your needs.  The requirements of the job.  Your ability to do your job which is diminishing with each hour you spend doing their job.  What you need from an employee in order to keep them in the job.

It’s the chick’s business to summon the strength to peck its way through that hard shell.  It’s the baby’s business to regulate its own emotions.  It’s your employee’s business to stare at the gap between what’s expected and what they’ve produced until they figure out how they can close that gap.  It’s your business is to keep your employee’s attention focused on the performance gap long enough to devise a plan for closing it. 

 Staying out of their business doesn’t mean the baby’s cry won’t make you squirm, or that you won’t long to reach out and crack the chick’s shell open.  It doesn’t mean you won’t feel uncomfortable watching your employee struggle to get their work done properly.  It doesn’t mean closing your heart or distancing yourself from them.  It means you know better than to get in the way of someone else’s progress.


  1. Nohemi Barriga says

    This accountability topic is quite profound, as their seems to be so much confusion as to what to do in these cases with those people that are under one’s supervision. You do not want to do their part of the work, but at the same time you want to be supportive and ensure that your subordinate understands that you are available when they need you.
    Now if we turn the tables around here, focusing on one being the subordinate; in this situation all one gets from the superior is being ignored when needing guidance on a whole new project, or better yet the superior states that she does not know and asks you to seek for answers elsewhere.

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