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Should You Hold People Accountable Publicly?

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m a project manager and often hold meetings with my team to ensure tasks get completed on time and project timelines aren’t in jeopardy. Recently, one team member said he wasn’t going to meet his deadlines. I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t want to call him out in front of everyone during the meeting, but I also didn’t want to let it slide. He has done this before. Any suggestions?

Caught in the Middle

Dear Caught,

Managers (of people and projects) are often called upon to make tough choices. Should we invest in this technology, or that? Should we hire this person, or that person? Should we focus our efforts on this market, or that one? Because so much of a manager’s work is a zero-sum game, it’s no wonder many develop binary thinking and see many choices as trade-offs.

Your question presents a tough binary choice between two different values: should you be respectful of your team member by not calling him out, or should you be honest about the missed deadlines? Respect, or candor? Which do you choose?

Here’s my advice: don’t choose. Reject the choice as the artificial and false binary that it is. It is possible, in this situation and others, to be both respectful and candid. You can start by believing you can. In fact, consider this: being direct and candid is one of the most authentic ways to be truly respectful of another person.

Here’s how you can start.

Create a Team Norm

Explain how you will handle missed deadlines and why. When starting a project (or starting to work with new team members) jointly acknowledge that deadlines will be missed at some point by someone. No project in the history of projects has ever gone exactly as planned. Once you have set the expectation that occasionally people will miss deadlines, talk about how you will handle this. Start with your good intent and let everyone know exactly how you’ll handle misses and why. It might sound like:

“Because so many other projects depend on this project, we need to talk about misses as a group. When someone misses a deadline, it impacts everyone. So, when that happens, let’s address it as a group, support each other, solve the problem together, and get back on track.”

Make It Safe

When needed, remind people of the team norm and shared expectation. When someone misses a deadline, as someone inevitably will, you can create psychological safety within the group by reminding them how you agreed to address misses. With safety established, you can call people in, not call them out. It might sound like this:

“Thanks for letting us know about the slip. As we all decided at the beginning of this project, these moments are good opportunities for us as a team to solve problems and support each other. Can you help us understand what factors are contributing?”

Note the reinforcement here of team accountability: “Can you help us understand” rather than “Can you help me understand?” Because you have set an expectation of accountability, you can now make accountability the province of the team, not just yourself.

At this point, you might be frustrated with my response. So far, I have suggested what you could have done earlier—but the horse is out of the barn! Team norms are great and all, but if you don’t already have them in place, what can you do right now?

Take It Private, Publicly

If you haven’t set the expectation that accountability will be a team effort, I think your best course of action is to hold the conversation privately, one-on-one. However, make sure you communicate to the rest of the team that these missed deadlines will be addressed, not just glossed over. So, make it public. It might sound like this:

“I’d like to talk about the missed deadlines and their impact. I’ll set up a time for the two of us to talk later, and then we can bring back an update to the team.”

In this way, you preserve safety for the individual by taking the conversation private, but you signal to the team that the conversation will happen. Moreover, you lay the groundwork for future accountability, and perhaps even a new team norm, by committing to report back to the team.

Hope that helps.


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

9 thoughts on “Should You Hold People Accountable Publicly?”

  1. RJ Goodman

    Great work, Emily! I’ve found that deadlines are missed for a variety of reasons. Getting to the root cause(s) of the miss have served me well. Common root causes for missed deadlines are… 1) arbitrary deadlines set by management without consultation with the people doing the work; 2) social motivation pressure to create unrealistic deadlines; or 3) something more important came up. Each root cause requires different countermeasures in order to take care of the immediate need and to create sustainable behaviors. -RJ

    1. Ray Schulte

      RJ- I wonder if your list of reasons for missing a deadline includes someone’s simple lack of commitment to do the work?

      1. RJ Goodman

        Thanks for the question, Ray! Yes, personal motivation could be a symptom that would help me find out the root cause. I’ve had direct reports who missed deadlines simply because they weren’t motivated to do the work. I think it is crucial that we master our stories and find the root cause(s) before moving to solutions. Have a great day!

  2. Edna E Place

    This is great guidelines to follow. Set expectations at the start of the project.

  3. Shelley Weiss

    This is a very kind and firm way to handle someone “dropping the ball”. I like how you also addressed setting up a way to handle missed deadlines before the project along with the “if you don’t have a team norm in place” situation. Thank you!

  4. Schubert Pereira

    Thanks for your thought stimulating article. Have used the old adage, “Praise publicly; guide privately.” I agree there is a situation when you can guide publicly….. After you have created a psychologically safe zone, and after you have built trust that your feedback is to develop the team member. It can only be done within that team or safe zone.

  5. Robert

    Either way on how it’s handled, there’s the project management piece that needs to be brought to the forefront if there are any project dependencies on the work not completed for the deadline. These would need to be addressed or potentially, delays to the project and people could be left waiting for the work to be completed (especially those hired specifically for that project ie: IT development projects). It’s a great idea to have the discussion upfront on just how these are handled; however, if that isn’t the case, the team still needs to be involved to determine the impact of not meeting that deadline and how to work ‘around it’.

  6. davidrobsonwg

    Another option comes to mind, although there may be issues with this that I’m not taking into account. Two important reasons we care about missed deadlines are (1) they may cause immediate problems because of dependencies, and (2) they may be an indicator of future problems due to a pattern of missed deadlines. Addressing the second reason involves discussing why the deadline was missed and what could be done differently in the future to avoid recurrence. It is probably best dealt with privately as suggested, at least initially. However, addressing the first reason, the immediate negative consequences for the project, can be done with the team without going into the causes of the miss. It doesn’t matter why the deadline was missed; the consequences have to be dealt with. Asking the team to collaborate on remediation reinforces team accountability and also sends a message to the person who missed their deadline that their teammates depend on them. For many people, that will provide additional motivation to do their best to meet deadlines in the future.

  7. Maxwell Biggs

    This was a great read. I especially liked how you brought it back to the basics of establishing “Intent” at the beginning of the project. This helps people feel not only safe but, establishes ground rules for when the standards are missed. Knowing the facts and that the missed deadline could possibly affect other aspects of the project helps the project remain on tract. Being held accountable doesn’t have to be an ugly occurrence of chastising the person, if done correctly it can show commitment to the project, the team and the individual by keeping the true story focused on the facts not everyone’s individual story.
    “One Team – One Story- One Set of Facts!”

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