Crucial Skills®

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How to Hold Employees Accountable while Empowering Them

Dear Crucial Skills,

How do you respectfully hold people accountable? We have clear standards for care, but some staff (and leaders) treat them as though they are optional. They aren’t! How do you hold someone accountable to the standard so they still feel capable, empowered, and motivated?

Leader at a Loss

Dear Leader,

Your question holds the key to influencing your people. You asked, “How do you hold someone accountable to the standard so they still feel capable, empowered, and motivated?” People do things for two reasons, because they want to (motivation) and because they can (ability). To hold people accountable to the standards, target both their motivation and ability, but first get clear on exactly what you want them to do.

Clarify Vital Behaviors

Clarify and emphasize the behaviors that will bring about the desired outcomes of care. Make it clear to people not only what they need to do, but also when they need to do it. Clarity is the precursor of change. Also make sure the standards of behavior truly lead to the results you want. Ask yourself, “Have I seen others do this behavior, and have they achieved the results? Is there data to suggest this behavior will generate the results we want?”

Address Ability First

Not only is it ineffective to try to motivate people to do things they are unable to do, when you enable people first, motivation often follows.

Three questions to ask:

Do people lack the knowledge or skills to do the desired behaviors?

If the answer to that question is “Yes,” it is important to invest in their development. If their lack of skill is keeping you from results, then their lack of skill is your problem. Look for ways to model the behavior, hold short training sessions, or give them the opportunity to evaluate their own performance.

Are others keeping them from being able to perform the desired behavior?

If so, assign mentors, coaches, and peers to provide examples, training, and feedback.

Is the environment preventing people from doing the desired behavior?

In many cases, our ability is impacted by our environment. Consider arranging spaces by moving things closer or farther away. Adjust the flow of data, provide the right tools or technologies, streamline any processes, and implement cues or reminders in key moments and key places. The goal should be to create an environment where it’s easier to meet the standard of behavior.

Address Motivation Second

With strategies in place to improve ability, look at three ways to make it motivating.

Connect to Moral Values

When people see that the desired behavior relates to their values, it changes how they feel, which impacts how they act. In reality, we can’t motivate others. We can, however, foster motivation by helping people see the connections between what’s important to them and the behaviors we need them to do. A key strategy to help others experience the implications of the behavior is to take them on a field trip to see the behavior in action or to tell them stories that create a vicarious experience. In other words, demonstrate how the behaviors relate to their values. Highlight the human, moral, or ethical consequences of the behaviors in question.

Leverage Social Influence

“Who you’re with is how you act.” Look for ways to lean on those with social influence. You can’t lead alone. Partnering with employees who already have influence will increase your efforts to bring about the desired behaviors. Get them on board first, then enlist them in your cause. Because people tend to conform to what’s normal, find ways to make the standard behaviors “normal.” Pair people up to foster accountability.

Use Rewards Sparingly

Often when striving to change behavior, leaders lean too heavily on rewards, prizes, promotions, or raises. These efforts rarely produce lasting behavior change. The key is to use this approach sparingly and only after you have worked to connect to moral values and leveraged social influences. It’s also important to choose rewards that are rewarding. Are the chosen rewards something people value? Will they truly incentivize the behavior? Finally, connect rewards to the behaviors and not the results. Not doing so may lead to unwanted consequences.

To summarize, make sure the standards are clear, specific, and lead to your desired outcomes, and think abilty first and motivation second. True leadership is about empowering others to become leaders themselves. Holding others accountable is that kind of empowerment.

I’d love to hear from readers how you have helped people meet standards of behavior. Let us know in the comments.


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5 thoughts on “How to Hold Employees Accountable while Empowering Them”

  1. Nikita

    This is such a serendipitous arrival in my inbox today. I have read the articles in the past but have been missing them for a while. A team of 17 ranging in ages 15-22 has been an interesting challenge since losing our chief assistant. However, the ideas listed here as well as building relationships has been crucial in developing my staff. Providing one on one time to connect or simply a quick hello to each while selecting a few to engage in quick chats is helping me see my team as people in addition to my employees. Learning about their home life and what are their aspirations, even at this stage when they are just stepping into the world learning what it means to exercise independence, has been a wonderful journey of authentic leadership for an introvert like myself. I am excited for this new chapter and look forward to growing myself as I develop and empower my team! Thank you 😊

  2. tom benzoni

    This can be a challenge; the actin may depend on the setting.
    If this is a professional setting wherein the employee is expected to act in the best interest of, say , a patient, then doing what one is told can run into professional ethical conflicts.
    E.g., the institution might get money for meeting a certain threshold of utilization of a drug or intervention. They may pressure practitioners to take certain actions/place certain orders that may or may not benefit the patient but will benefit the organization. When this occurs, the loss of trust is profound.
    Thus, depending on the setting, leadership needs to ask: Whet would happen if I was totally transparent, revealing any incentives I or my organization receives, including money, prestige, advancement, etc.
    I’ve been surprised over the decades to see this really work, including when the leader stated they would get a job promotion and the organization would get money if we would do XYZ.
    This is a great strategy to reduce burnout!

  3. jean

    great article!


  4. Denise

    I’m a bit conflicted on the skill statement. We had a person that was trained for over 3 months on a program and process and she still could not do the job. She ended up leaving and skewered me in the exit interview. I was not the trainer but the person that was is very knowledgeable (the SME) on that job. I had several meetings with the frustrated employee and she never told me directly what the issues were even after being asked. This has happened with a couple of other people as well but maybe I’m associating skill with will? It’s been very frustrating to me as a manager because I don’t know how to help in the event of future situations.

  5. SP Schreuder

    Accountability is something many complain about and fundamental to developing a trusting relationship. I love the way you have simplified the model Scott. I do love facilitating this program – gets individuals to see how they can take responsibility for diagnosing what’s the possible obstacle/s and how to bridge this – through effective engagements.

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