Holding Others Accountable — Without Being a Jerk

Ted is your co-worker. He is on another team, and you depend on him to get you things so you can complete your tasks.

Each time you ask Ted to get you something by a certain date, he says, “For sure!” The only problem is that half the time, he doesn’t deliver.

To make matters worse, he doesn’t let you know he will be late. Sometimes, he doesn’t even respond to your emails asking about his part of the project and when it will arrive. 

You’re pretty sure Ted means well, but his lack of follow-through is a problem: it costs you time, raises stress levels and slows down projects. Sometimes, his actions have an impact on other team members. They might also make you look bad to your manager because deadlines slip or work is rushed.

You don’t want to be pushy, but you can’t keep letting Ted’s lack of follow-through slide. What is a well-meaning, diligent collaborator to do?

Lack of accountability can have a significant negative impact on our work. Yet whether we have authority over someone or we don’t, most of us tend to want to avoid calling people like Ted out.

Here’s what we hear from the leaders, managers, and individual contributors we work with: “I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.” “I don’t want to harm the relationship.” “What if it just makes things worse?” “What if they become demotivated, or even quit?” Sometimes, we hear things like, “What if I don’t have my facts straight and it turns out I was wrong?” “What if they attack me or retaliate in some way?” And finally, “I don’t want to be a jerk.”

These are all valid concerns. They cause most of us to either skip holding Ted accountable at all, or engage in a conversation with him that we know is too soft at best, or passive aggressive at worst.

Yet in today’s collaborative work environment, we depend on others to complete our work, and we must hold others accountable for theirs. If we are a leader or manager, doing so is part of our job. At any level, accountability is one of the hallmarks of a great organization.

So, what is a nice person to do when someone else isn’t following through? Avoid the main mistakes people make when having accountability conversations, and focus on these four key tools instead:

Instead of Blame, Embrace a “Same Side” Mindset

The best way to sink an accountability conversation from the start is to blame the other party. Blame is also the approach most likely to elicit a defensive response and close the door to improvement. Instead of blaming, embrace a “Same Side” mindset. That doesn’t mean agreeing with Ted or “being nice.” It means viewing the fact that you aren’t getting what you need as a problem to solve, rather than a fault to place blame. Focus on solving the problem together, for the good of the project, your teams, your relationship, and the organization.

Instead of Judgments, Focus on the Data

Maybe Ted is just lazy, or maybe he’s really out to make your life hell. Probably not. Either way, your judgments of Ted will put him on the defensive and won’t help you stay Same Side. Instead, focus on the data, that is, what actually happened. Calmly explain to Ted the pattern you have noticed. Be specific and concise, and ask him if he’s noticed the same. 

Instead of Convincing, Describe the Impact

Most accountability conversations fail because each party tries to convince the other they’re right. “It’s your job to get me these things, isn’t it?!” “Well, I have other things to do, you know, and you’re not my manager!” Instead of making a case for why Ted should change, describe how his lack of follow-through affects the work, your team, the customer—and yes, you.

Instead of a One-Way Conversation, Generate Solutions Together

Instead of first proposing your ideas, start by asking Ted. Tap into your Same Side mindset, and ask Ted what he thinks he needs to do to deliver on his commitments more regularly. You’re far more likely to engage him and get his buy-in. And who knows? He might even think of a better set of solutions than you.

Will these conversations go perfectly every time? Nope, we’re all still human. But after working with hundreds of managers, individual contributors, and teams, we have seen the difference they can make.

A few things happen when we try these tools: We get more of our work done. We’re less stressed. Our relationships improve. And we may just be giving Ted a gift too: compassionately helping him to see his shortcomings and improve his follow-through.

We hope this helps! Feel free to let us know how your accountability conversations go, and get in touch if you think some coaching or training might be useful for your organization.

Roni Krouzman