When working with leadership teams discussing how to improve performance, I’ll often hear someone say; ‘We need to hold people more accountable around here….’

These declarations usually come from highly committed, successful leaders who just want people to be more dependable and to deliver on their promises without having to step-in.

Fear as Motivator

They’ll talk about ways to hold others more accountable such as: give them a verbal warning, put them on a performance improvement plan, or withhold their bonus. These consequences would certainly get someone’s attention, but will that inspire more accountability? Read on.

Consequences can land on a person as though it’s a threat. Threats usually cause fear. While fear can be motivating, its’ best in true flight or fight situations such as running from a bear or pulling someone out of a raging river. It can also motivate us to hit a tight deadline or to ‘pull out all the stops’ to land that project in time.

But as the late Judith Glaser shared in her book Conversational Intelligence, our response to fear tends to trigger the release of cortisol and adrenaline in our system and shunts blood to our muscles, away from the executive center of our brain. Just when you want them to think, anticipate, and problem solve, fear actually makes a person less able to think creatively or solve complex problems. While the adrenaline will eventually dissipate, so might their trust in you.

So while it can be a short term motivator it may not be the best long term strategy.

On Consequences

Starting with consequences assumes that the reason the person is not delivering as expected, is primarily due to an attitude problem: ‘They’re just not trying’, ‘they’re not taking these deadlines seriously’ or ‘they’re just resisting change’. While it’s possible they may not be taking the deadline seriously, there are other possibilities:

  • They weren’t clear on what was expected.
  • They didn’t realize they had the authority to make that decision.
  • They focused on another priority they believed was more important.
  • They might lack the confidence in their knowledge and skills to complete the task to your expectations so they hesitate.

But what if you could not actually ‘hold’ someone accountable? What if that’s not really what ‘accountability’ is?

A different kind of accountability

What if true accountability was a choice. To see something as so important, we choose to get it done no matter what. Like a parent who provides food and shelter for their children day after day. Or the business leader who gets up at 5 a.m. to workout, or the single mom who volunteers on a board, or the student who coaches amateur sports? No one is holding them accountable. The motivation comes from insideThey’re propelled by something deeply important to them and they’ll do what’s right even when it’s hard. Even when no one is watching.

Passion as motivator

If being accountable is a choice, then we need to find a way to help an individual tap into what motivates them to make that choice. We need to help them see the link between their motivation and delivering on that task. Most people already come motivated. For an easy read try DRIVE by Daniel Pink where he cites purpose, mastery, and autonomy as 3 very common motivators. Or look at the research of Adrian Gostick and Chestor Elton in their book What Motivates Me.

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Still another way to find out what motivates someone is to ask. You could just ask the person;

  • What’s one thing that drew you to this role?
  • What’s most important to you in your role? (or in your life)
  • If you could do more of something, what would that be?

Alert: Just showing your interest in someone by asking these questions can be motivating.

For more tips on how to have a conversation like this, check out this article on Connecting.

Now that we know what is most motivating to the person, we can frame the task or project or duties we want them to perform, in terms of what they care most about. We help them see the link. Since many leaders have a high degree of self-initiative and motivation, they may feel that they as the leader shouldn’t have to do this, the team member should motivate themselves. Well again, many team members are motivated and perform highly. Those that seem to be behaving in a way that is not accountable, may not see the link between what they are wanting more of, and delivering on that promise without being asked.

Inviting Accountability

So here are ten ideas on how to inspire more accountability, that are easy to use and get results:

  1. Keep modelling the way yourself by delivering on your promises. Your own actions speak louder than words.
  2. Take time to ensure your team members know what is expected. Saying ‘I need you to be more strategic’ leaves room for interpretation. Saying ‘I’d like you to identify 3-4 key stakeholders who could really help you to sponsor this project’ is more specific.
  3. Let them know how much authority they have to make decisions. Do they do the research and you decide? Come with a recommendation but run it by you first? Or do they have free reign to create, problem solve, implement and evaluate?
  4. Help make the connection between what they care about, and their responsibilities. ‘What’s most motivating to you about…? What could achieving this goal allow for?
  5. Ask them to anticipate what challenges might get in their way.
  6. Ask what support they might need and, ‘how can I help?’
  7. Ask ‘will you do it?’ This is a powerful question I learned from CTI coaches training. When a person says yes, they’re calling up an internal conviction to commit. If they say no, ask them to say more – ask them what getting in the way of committing?
  8. Ask ‘when can you have it done by?’ By asking, you get a sense of what they’re willing to commit to. If you had a different deadline in mind, you can negotiate. Remember, every conversation you have is a chance to develop that person.
  9. When they do deliver on a promise, give them positive feedback right away.
  10. When they miss, seek first to understand. Ask what happened, what was the impact, what can they do next time to ensure they have a better outcome. 

Accountability can be learned. It’s complex behavior that involves knowledge, skills, and desire. Because it’s a skill it takes practice, with feedback and ideas. This is what the best leaders do – invest in their staff. You could say they hold themselves accountable for developing their people.