Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Holding People Accountable at Work

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a problem. Our business results are below expectations and upper management believes it’s because our supervisors are not holding their employees accountable for results. I have witnessed times when an employee does something not according to company policy and the employee’s immediate supervisor does nothing. We have had training courses galore in supervisory skill development, so I know the supervisors have been exposed to how to set expectations, how to observe and measure results, how to provide performance feedback, etc.

It just seems that they do not want to confront the employees about performance problems because they don’t want to give the bad news.

The business unit vice president wants to start firing the supervisors. I don’t think that is the solution. I think we need to get our supervisors comfortable with confronting their employees about the performance issues.

Any ideas on how I can convince the Vice President?

Conflicted in Connecticut

Dear Conflicted,

You asked the right question. Why is it that people who’ve been trained in a specific skill don’t use it? This just happens to be the subject of twenty-five years of our research, so bear with me as I try to answer this often-asked question.

When people don’t enact a certain behavior, it’s for one of three reasons.

  1. They don’t want to do it.
  2. They don’t know how to do it.
  3. A combination of both.

When your bosses suggest that maybe they should start firing supervisors, it sounds as if they’ve made the following diagnosis: “The supervisors simply don’t WANT to do what they should do–everyone knows it isn’t fun holding employees accountable–so maybe firing a few will add an extra incentive to those who are left behind.”

This is hardly the correct solution to an accountability problem. It’s more an act of frustration and desperation and will likely cause a whole host of new problems. It also doesn’t model what the bosses want the supervisors to do when dealing with employees who aren’t living up to their expectations. Fire them straight out of the chute? Surely there are other methods.

Here’s what we’ve generally found to be true with reluctant supervisors.

Confidence and Perceived Ability

Your diagnosis is right. It’s almost always an issue of perceived ability. Supervisors don’t have confidence that what they have learned will actually work when dealing with their employees.

This can stem from one of several different sources. They may have only been given general directions, but don’t know exactly what to do and say. Most accountability training is long in theory and short in genuine skills. If supervisors have been given actual skills or best practices, they may not feel as if they know how to do them as of yet. Perhaps they weren’t given enough time to practice until the language was comfortable and the method was second nature.

Training Relevancy and Success

Beyond effectiveness, you have to deal with the relevancy of the training they’ve received. Did the supervisors see what they learned as something that would actually work with their people? Much of what is taught today fails this test. Those in the training look at the examples taught and think, “My people would NEVER react like that.” If the skills are out of date or out to lunch, who can blame the learners for discounting the material and not giving it a whirl at work? It’s possible that the training the supervisors had was well-intended but wasn’t skill-based enough, relevant enough, or long enough to create comfort.

Social Concerns and Standards

Another common hindrance is related to social issues. If you’re asking supervisors to now hold people accountable to standards that you used to let go, who’s going to be the first to step up? Who wants to run the risk of being seen as the “tough nut” while everyone else is letting the issue slide? Who wants to look like a naive do-gooder? So people wait for others to say something before they speak up.

If this is the case, it’s important to meet as workgroups, talk about the new expectations, explain the need for the new standard, and then hold people accountable to it as a group. If you haven’t held these sessions, supervisors are going to stay mum. Nobody wants to look erratic.

Following Up on Commitments

What if the standard you’re asking people to keep is something you’ve asked for before, maybe even for years, but never really held people accountable to keep? You have, in effect, cried wolf, and now you expect people to believe you when the real wolf is at the door. You’ll have to make this sad truth part of your explanation to teams as you talk about the new/old standard. People are smart. They know you’ve been lax and that they’ve gotten away with poor performance. It’s part of today’s real standard, and you have to address this problem as well.

Additionally, a number of motivational factors could be influencing the supervisors’ behavior–ranging from the formal reward system to the informal actions of the big boss.

Next Steps and Breaking the Cycle

So, what’s a person to do in the face of these possibilities? You’ve got to get to all of the underlying causes. Expand your search for causes beyond simply “the supervisors don’t want to do what they’ve been told to do.” Think about what may be making it difficult for them to hold others accountable–what barriers could be removed? What motivation and ability components are coming into play here? There are bound to be several.

In any case, stick to your convictions. Conduct a quick diagnosis and then share with the bosses the various elements that are leading to the supervisors’ reluctance. Armed with a more complete picture as well as a more complex solution, they won’t feel compelled to fire people who are caught in a web of problems that are keeping them from doing what you want.

Good luck!


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Leave a Reply