Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Holding Peers Accountable Without Management’s Support

Dear Crucial Skills,

How do you hold your peers accountable when you don’t have the support of their supervisor, or in some instances the support of your own supervisor?

I work with a person in a cross-functional team who is disorganized (he loses things on a regular basis and asks me to resend things), unprepared (we show up for a meeting and he’s still setting up equipment so we have to wait to start the meeting), and shows up to meetings late or doesn’t show up at all. Sometimes, when I come into his office, he is working on a project for his personal company, but he continues to complain that he has too much work and can’t get our projects done.

Because of the workflow, I field a steady stream of complaints about him where I’m literally left saying, “What do you want me to do? I’m not his boss.” I’ve tried discussing things with him directly and I’ve tried discussing things with his supervisor, but no one will hold this person accountable and I’m not allowed to. What do I do?

Out of Ideas

Dear Out of Ideas,

You’re off to a good start. I’m impressed that you have attempted to directly address the issue with him and with his supervisor. Nice job.

To help you think about any remaining options, let me suggest five levels of influence you can use when dealing with problem peers. Use them in order. In other words, don’t move to #2 until you’ve effectively attempted #1, and so on.

1. Content. The first time you have problems, present them immediately and directly to the individual involved. Don’t wait for it to happen again. Don’t wait until it really ticks you off. Do it right away. Remember also to do it skillfully—create safety, master your stories, etc. For example, the “content” conversation you might have would address “You did not send me the report by Wednesday as you committed. What happened?”

2. Pattern. When it is clear that a pattern is emerging, you must have an entirely different kind of conversation that leads to different kinds of solutions. Many people misunderstand pattern conversations. They think it simply means addressing, “You failed to get me the report on time the last four weeks in a row” as opposed to, “You got the report to me late again this week!” This is true. You must be sure to raise the right issue, but you must also be sure the agreements you come to at the end address the true nature of the pattern. For example, “I’m sorry, I have been really irresponsible. I will do better next week. I promise!” is insufficient.

You must stay in the conversation longer to understand what general causes there are and to develop solutions you believe will address those general causes. For example, if the person is disorganized, what will they do to get more organized? If they are overcommitted, how will they manage that? If they see this as a low priority task, what will change next time? If the only thing that changes is they want to avoid another crucial conversation with you, you’ll get temporary motivation but nothing sustainable. Be sure to solve the pattern problem.

3. Relationship. This is also a conversation you have directly with the individual. Notice we’re at influence level three and we haven’t had to involve anyone else yet. However, the nature of the conversation changes each time. At this level, you are no longer trying to solve the pattern. Rather, you are discussing ways to restructure the relationship around it. The person has repeatedly demonstrated an inability and/or unwillingness to keep prior commitments. At this level you must say, “I need a different way of working together—one that does not put you on my critical path. I want to be clear that this isn’t the way I want it. I would much prefer to work in the way we have attempted, but if conditions change to restore my trust, let’s go back to that relationship. However, until I have that trust, here is what I will need to do . . .”

Relationship problems are often solved by developing new boundaries or roles that work for you. The key is that these new boundaries must be explicitly shared with the other person—not simply taken behind his or her back. For example, we often start doing others’ work as a workaround to their weaknesses without letting them know we are doing this. That is acting out rather than talking out the problem. Influence level three is candidly discussing with them the steps you will take to ensure you have control of your destiny. For instance, if part of the problem is someone’s abusive behavior, this could include letting him or her know that until you see changes you will not have contact with him or her. Relationship conversations are often the level at which you must involve other stakeholders—the person’s boss, your boss, HR, etc. But again, you must let the person know that you have exhausted your options and will need to be honest with those who have responsibility to address the concerns—or who may be affected by them.

4. Upward Influence. Level four is sometimes needed as part of level three. Let’s say the person on your cross-functional team was responsible for logistics and you are at the point of using other resources to get that done. You should now hand the influence problem over to the person who should own it next—your coworker’s boss. Don’t do it in the form of blame or to vilify the person. In fact, do it gracefully, acknowledging that you may be part of the problem in a way you weren’t aware of and are open to feedback if the person’s boss discovers something you had not seen.

At the same time, let him or her know what you’ve attempted to do to solve it and why you need to take the steps you’re taking. If your boss will be affected by the actions you are taking, you may need to involve him or her as well. Once again, be careful that you are not engaging in gossip or trying to undermine the other party. Check your motives. Simply let others own the part of the problem they need to own, while taking steps you need to take. Let them know the natural consequences of the problem—without overstating them—and why your response is necessary for your own quality of work life and results.

5. Renegotiate Work. The fifth level of influence is needed if the problem persists and your coping strategies fail to help you ensure a reasonable quality of work life as well as control over your results. If this happens, you may need to have a “relationship” conversation with your boss. Perhaps your boss and others have failed to address the accountability problem with the other person in a way that continues to cause problems for you, you may choose to ask for a different assignment, more organizational distance from the individual, or reduced commitments on your shared project. You may say, “I can continue to work with Jack, but I will need more flexibility on our deadlines due to the unpredictability of his contributions.”

Sometimes, the best way to influence your boss or others in leadership positions is to help them experience the consequences of the problem you are facing. Busy people don’t like to take on new problems, so it’s often the case that when you share your accountability concerns they minimize them by avoiding thinking about them in more visceral ways. Level five lets them experience it more palpably as you communicate what you will need in order to work in this low accountability reality.

None of the above advice is a magic pill—it is simply the logical process you need to pursue in order to take responsibility for your own life and your own results. If you do so in a 100 percent respectful and 100 percent honest way, you will have far more influence than you might think. And if thi
ngs don’t improve to your satisfaction, you must take responsibility for either accepting a situation you can no longer influence or removing yourself from it.

I wish you all the best.


Develop Your Crucial Skills

Image for

What's Your Style Under Stress?

Discover your dialogue strengths and weaknesses with this short assessment.

Take Assessment

Image for

Subscribe Now

Subscribe to the newsletter and get our best insights and tips every Wednesday.


Image for

Ask a Question

From stubborn habits to difficult people to monumental changes, we can help.

Ask a Question

6 thoughts on “Holding Peers Accountable Without Management’s Support”

  1. AGodsey

    This individual’s habits appear classic to someone with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). The way his brain works makes it overwhelmingly difficult to complete tasks even with the truest of intentions and efforts. One of my family members with ADD refused medication for a number of years. Finally, due largely to work performance issues, he began taking appropriate ADD medication and his life, work performance and self image have changed dramatically. His supervisor immediately noticed the change in his ability to complete multiple tasks on time and said, “Whatever you’re doing, keep on doing it!” He can focus now so that he can actually read/study a book for long periods of time, which has opened a whole new world of knowledge and career possibilities. He now believes he can live up to the high potential everyone has always told him he possesses. Of course, as we all do, he still has behaviors that need to change and following the course of action outlined in Change Anything is a most effective way to make those changes. However, without the appropriate use of medication to get his brain working for him instead of against him, I believe successful change would continue to be very difficult at best.Together, meaningful and lasting change is within reach.

  2. Holding Peers Accountable Without Management&rs...

    […] How do you hold your peers accountable when you don't have the support of their supervisor, or in some instances the support of your own supervisor?  […]

  3. SeaDrain

    Your articles have been very enlightening – I look forward to them.
    However, this topic has an image of a Black man who is labeled “The Unaccountable.” This image compels me to have a crucial conversation with Joseph Grenny and the publication staff who believe it is acceptable to publish an image of a minority and risk perpetuating a stereotype or stigmatize.

    Universally, White people are used in most images – no one attributes a negative stereotype to the entire White race of people; it is considered a generality. However, Black people and others of color are seldom published. When they are, their image draws extra attention because it is rare.

    Unfortunately, collective thinking in society has not risen above fear, mistrust, low expectations and overall disdain of Black people, especially Black men. Applying that caption implies that these people are “the unaccountable.” I admit, if the image were of a White person, I would be thinking more generically about ALL people who are unaccountable, not just Black people who are labeled unaccountable.

    Was this intentional – to draw attention?
    Did you consider the rarity of a Black man’s image?
    Did you consider the frequency of a Black man’s image coupled with a negative caption?
    Are you concerned with responsible social equity in print/electronic media?
    I believe your blogs intend to help.

    1. Editor

      We truly did not intend any racial bias, but we can see how this might have been perceived. We will correct the image appearing in our newsletter, Facebook, and blog pages and replace it with a different photo. We also plan to send an apology to all newsletter readers in the next issue. Please accept our sincere apology for this misunderstanding and misrepresentation of who we are as an organization.

      We would also like to take a brief moment to explain why this particular photo was used. The man you see in the photo is one of the main actors in our latest video regarding unaccountability. If you have the opportunity to view the video, you will see that he is the manager who has to confront employees who are unaccountable. He is not the one who is “unaccountable.”

      Again, please accept our apologies for any perceived bias and wrong doing.

  4. John Anderson

    Nucor Steel is a great example of a very successful company where co-employees manage each other. If someone is underperforming “they run them off”. It is part of their culture. They confront poor performers on a regular basis until the person steps up or leaves.
    John C. Anderson

  5. Adrian

    I had this problem with a volunteer on a community support team I manage. She was a nice lady, but she would volunteer for EVERYTHING and then never complete any of the tasks she had agreed to. I did have the conversations with her, explained the expectations and deadlines, defined the importance of the work she was doing, made sure she had the skill and resources to do it, and she still let me down again and again. After a certain number of disappointments – almost ten of them, I finally decided that she was in some kind of self-sabotage loop and it was preventing more capable people for stepping up for the tasks because they thought she would do them. It was seriously hampering our team’s performance. Finally I had to ask her to stop volunteering for things. Now she has dropped off the team altogether and is probably very resentful of us, but I just felt like I didn’t have any other choice. Sometimes you just need to move on and get things done.

Leave a Reply

Get your copies
The ideas and insights expressed on Crucial Skills hail from five New York Times bestsellers.


Take advantage of our free, award-winning newsletter—delivered straight to your inbox