Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Accountability

How to Foster Accountability in a Tight-Knit Culture

Dear David,

Our organization is non-profit with a family-oriented culture. Unfortunately, we act like a family that has no accountability. Instead of holding people to account, our approach is to avoid and dumb down. No one is ever fired for poor performance. People arrive late, fail to complete time-sensitive tasks, and chat a lot—I mean they sit and chat for hours. Meetings don’t start on time because we wait for stragglers. I could go on. Those of us who have a work ethic and a sense of responsibility have to pick up the slack. When we took our concerns to management, they wrote out a list of service values and code of civility, rather than directly address the performance issues. Is there anything I can do?

Wanting Accountability Tactics

Dear Wanting,

Thanks for a challenging question that a lot of us can relate to. Maybe we don’t work in a non-profit, but we struggle with a culture that is low on accountability. Or we work under a management team that seems more interested in keeping the peace than in improving performance. I’ll suggest some ways to begin having an impact.

Partner with a Leader. It sounds as if you are not in a supervisory position. Changing these norms will require you to partner with someone who is. You need a leader who is likely to share your concerns, who has the skill and autonomy to try these ideas with their team, and who will be able to influence other leaders through their success. Don’t expect the right leader to immediately volunteer for this pathfinder role. They may have other concerns that are equally or more important than yours. Finding and nurturing a partnership will require listening, fact-finding, patience, and compromise.

Focus on the Fool’s Choice. We humans are quick to see decisions as either/or, even when they aren’t. In Crucial Conversations we call these Fool’s Choices. Examples include thinking we need to choose between peace and honesty or between winning and losing. In your case, the Fool’s Choice is between holding people accountable and treating them with caring respect. The way you break free of a Fool’s Choice is to ask, “How can we do both?” In this case: “How can we hold people accountable while still showing them our caring respect?” This is the question you and your leader partner will need to address and answer.

Turn Purpose into Measurable Goals. It sounds as if your organization is using “service values” as a substitute for measurable results. Unfortunately, these service values have become minimum standards of behavior, rather than challenging targets to achieve.

Consider using a method called Strategy On A Page (SOAP) to cascade your broad purpose and vision down to measurable goals. Create a SOAP that details the links between your organization’s ambitions (what it wants to achieve in the world) and the measurable results that departments and individuals must achieve for this ambition to be realized. Identifying measurable results that must be achieved provides an immediate reason to hold people accountable.

Identify Problem Behaviors. Involve the people affected by the problems you describe (lateness, chatting, etc.) in identifying problem behaviors. The goal is to have the group agree on the behavior changes they want to see within their team. A powerful way to involve them is to use a Start, Stop, and Continue exercise. This exercise asks the group to identify new behaviors they need to Start doing in order to achieve their measurable results, existing behaviors they need to Stop doing if they are to achieve these results, and existing behaviors they need to Continue doing to achieve the results. Notice that these behaviors might be related to your organization’s “service values” but will be far more focused. Document these behaviors, create posters that describe them, and ask everyone to sign these posters as their commitment to change.

Build New Skills and Norms. We ask for 200 percent accountability for the behavior changes the team has identified. This means that team members are 100 percent accountable for their own behaviors and also 100 percent accountable for the behaviors of their colleagues. Instead of leaders being the only ones to hold others accountable, everyone in the team holds everyone else accountable.

Provide Leadership Support. When it comes to accountability, follow-through is everything. Work with your leader partner to identify formal and informal leaders who can help team members hold each other accountable. These leaders will play a champion role: coaching people who don’t feel skilled enough to hold a peer or boss to account, pushing people who don’t want to hold others accountable, and stepping in when an accountability discussion goes poorly or results in retaliation.

I hope these ideas give you a place to start. What have other readers seen that works? Please comment with your ideas below.


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

5 thoughts on “How to Foster Accountability in a Tight-Knit Culture”

  1. Kevin

    Month after month I read the nonsensical writings of these so call experts on how to obtain productivity in the “New Age” workforce. You provide no credible suggestions in any of your writings but use a large word salad to make it seem like you’ve done something. You’ve not.

    Holding people accountable isn’t a new idea. Its what got this country this far and hopefully, when the country wakes up will hold people accountable in the future.

    If people are chatting during work hours then tell them “if the conversation is not work related then save it for break time and get back to work.”

    Straight talk is appreciated more than this coddling that you suggest. It’s what got us to the moon. And in the future, will be what gets us back there. Not the “petting zoo” that work places have become.


    1. David Maxfield

      Thanks Kevin. As you suggest, it’s easy to hold people accountable when they report to you. But, in a truly accountable organization, subordinates hold their bosses to account. That’s when people begin to need skills. The conversation you describe, “Get back to work.” doesn’t work quite so well when you’re talking to your boss. Do you see this differently?

    2. Patrick

      I rarely comment on anything online but I felt the need to defend the author here. My organization has used their training for years now and it is not “word salad” nor promoting “New Age” workforce in my experience. It has made a positive impact on our company (a large one) and in my personal life. I would argue that the foundation of all of these articles is straight talk – but straight talk that engages everyone versus straight talk that displays power.

      And I’m preparing my children to get to Mars or beyond – there is very little reason to return to the moon.

  2. Julinda

    I like this advice, but I would go further and say that if the organization is that informal, your advice-seeker might find that the suggested changes are not welcome and others are happy with the way things are. If that turns out to be the case, he/she may need to consider whether that organization is a good fit for him.

  3. How to foster accountability in a tight-knit culture

Leave a Reply