How to Hold Your Team Accountable

Leading from a place of empathy and accountability isn’t easy, but it’s the only way to get the results you want.

How the heck do I hold my team accountable? It’s literally the number one question leaders ask. And it often comes with a tone of frustration and annoyance with the team. When leaders ask that question, they’re pointing fingers, but they need to shift the mirror a little bit and take a deeper look. 

In today’s episode of the Ready to Lead Podcast, co-hosts Richard Lindner and Jeff Mask turn the mirror on themselves as leaders and ask: Have I created an environment where clear accountability is the norm? Or are there ambiguities, inconsistencies, and miscommunications between me and my team? In Jeff’s experience, 90% of accountability issues go away when we apply the following model.

3 Keys to Winning

The three keys to winning are easy to remember because they all start with the same word, and they all rhyme.

  1. Clarity of role
  2. Clarity as a whole
  3. Clarity of goals

Let’s start with clarity of role. Is each person’s role super clear? Do they know their responsibilities? Do they know what success looks like and by when? It seems elementary, but so often we hire someone and never have that foundational conversation about their responsibilities, what success looks like, and the timeframe.

Then we move on to clarity as a whole. As a team, how do we work together? How do we pass the baton back and forth, both intra- and inter-departmentally? When people know who’s doing what, it’s much more clear how we operate together, in our own department and cross-functionally. When we don’t define things clearly—who owns what and when—then there are a lot of gray areas and finger-pointing.

The final key to winning is clarity of goals. This is all about clear milestones, rewards if necessary, and ultimately what success looks like. When we have all that clarity, then accountability conversations are easy to have. They get difficult when we haven’t done the groundwork to create clarity, and we’re all on different pages with different interpretations of what things mean.

Think of a 4×4 relay team. Each runner knows what their particular role is. They know what to do. They know what it needs to look like when they pass off the baton. They know what time they want to beat. And they know they want that gold medal. That’s clarity. 

Each Team Member Has to Understand the Why

When Richard starts a new company as an entrepreneur, it’s just one or two people, then a handful more, and it’s easy to be on the same page. You’re literally in the same room doing everything together. But then, as the team grows, it’s easy to assume everyone knows the why as your team widens, deepens, grows. But that’s a logical lie. 

People need to understand what you do, who you serve, the business model, and value creation as a whole. If they don’t understand that, they can’t possibly understand how they contribute to that value, individually or as a team.

If they know what they’re supposed to do, but they don’t know why, you might as well hire robots. A robot will continue to do that one thing even after it stops working. So will the employee who doesn’t understand why in the hell they’re doing what you asked them to do.

If they understand the why, they can come to you and say, “This isn’t working, and I researched it, and I think we should try this instead.”

Understanding the Kindness Counterfeit

What commonly happens is that leaders try too hard to be nice and slack off on accountability. What they’re really trying to do is maintain likeability. But ambiguity isn’t kindness; clarity is. Dancing around the truth, cushioning it, isn’t helping anybody. And, really, it’s selfish leadership. You want people to like you, so you avoid that hard conversation. 

Go into that meeting with, “Hey, do you remember we talked about clarity of role, whole, goal? From this definition of success, I don’t see it happening. Do you see it in a different way? Did we get to this result by the time we agreed on? I know you’re better than this. I know you can do it.”

When you speak to them from who they can become, not from who they are, that gives you the courage to be clear. Kindness isn’t about being weak. It’s about being super direct and loving. They know you care because you’re pushing them to the next level vs. letting them flounder in a place of apathy. 

We don’t hold people accountable because of pain avoidance, but we’re just setting ourselves up for greater pain down the road. We’re trying to avoid making someone feel bad, but the compounding effect of that is terminating someone. Firing someone is harder than having an accountability conversation.

Bad bosses don’t set clear expectations. They don’t hold people accountable. Then one day when they’re so resentful of that employee, they fire them, and that person goes home and says, “I don’t know what happened. I thought everything was fine. No one ever told me I was doing a bad job.”

Lead with Humility and Curiosity

Lead with humility and curiosity. It takes the sting out of accountability. Say: “I want to talk with you about…” instead of  “I need to talk to you about…” 

Maybe you have inadequate data. Maybe they’re doing someone else’s job. Give them the benefit of the doubt and find out. Lead with, “These were the areas you were going to own. This is how we were going to track them, and the metrics aren’t there. I’m going to assume it’s because something’s not working or you don’t have the resources you need. Do you have everything you need to fill this role and achieve these goals?”

You never know what’s going on. The line between personal and professional has been blurred more than ever because of the pandemic. Maybe they have some heavy stuff at home. That excuses problems for a little while, but only if you know it’s going on and you reset those expectations. Others on the team can help pick up the slack, but it needs to be communicated to them in an appropriate way.

Your mindset around accountability is the difference between avoiding it and leaning into it. Accountability is love, caring. It’s best for everyone. If the goal is alignment, an accountability conversation is good for both of you. 

What can you implement from today’s episode? Take action and let Jeff and Richard know how it goes. The more we take action together, the more we’ll grow and be more and more ready to lead every day, every week, every month.

Richard and Jeff want to hear from YOU. Have feedback on the show? Topics you’d like them to dive into? Things that resonated with you or that you disagreed with? Email them here: 


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