How To Hold People Accountable


“Out of all the things we expect of leaders…by far the single-most shirked responsibility of executives is holding people accountable.” Harvard Business Review.

A harsh fact to face, especially if we are the executives…or the leaders or the managers. But, as harsh as it may be, in my experience, almost all leaders find holding their people accountable the most challenging of their responsibilities. This also holds true for people not in formal leadership roles, but who are required to collaborate with their peers to get their job done (I think we’ve covered every body).

Avoid this responsibility we may, but it’s only because it’s extremely difficult to do well.

It’s easy to hold people accountable when we don’t care about how they feel, what matters to them, or retaining their trust. We can push our way through resistance, making demands and expecting people to follow.

Like a bull in a china shop we can just leave the mess for others to clean up.

But when we know that having the trust of our people is key to success in both tangible measures (like KPI’s) and intangible experiences (like a cohesive, value-based culture), the nuanced skill in effectively holding people accountable becomes much more complex and challenging to navigate.

“In our database of more than 5,400 upper-level managers…
gathered since 2010, 46% are rated “too little” on the item,

‘Holds people accountable — firm when they don’t deliver’ “

Consider the conversations you are currently avoiding. With your boss, your direct report, your equivalent in another business function or an external stakeholder. Someone with whom you’ve attempted to have an accountability conversation before, and you either thought it went well at the time though it proved to make little difference, or it was obvious that it didn’t go well and trust was damaged.

These kind of conversations get put off, worked around and procrastinated about every day, by most people across every organisation.

We default to hoping these tricky situations sort themselves out, or we’re just too busy to invest the time, or we’re buying more time to try and figure out how to approach the issue.

Whatever the reason that we’re still thinking about it and not doing anything, these accountability conversations are taking up valuable and precious space in our minds. They are chewing up creative energy, distracting us from our focus and chipping away at self-belief and confidence. 

I’m all for some healthy procrastination and feeling into the right timing (if it’s done consciously and not as an avoidance tactic), but the longer we leave it, the greater the risk that trust will be harder to build or restore.

Here are a few simple suggestions to help you move toward being able to hold people accountable with presence and influence while deepening trust:

1. Own your stuff – do some self-reflection before you go anywhere near approaching the other person. Self-responsibility is the sign of an emotionally mature leader who doesn’t define their worth by being right. Where did you not live up to your end of the bargain?

2. Be real – with yourself first. What’s hard about this situation? What are you pretending you know that you really don’t? Where are you putting up a facade to seem more in control or ‘together’ than you really are? 

3. Check your agenda – holding someone accountable in a way that builds trust requires you to be congruent in who you are being. Your thoughts, expressions and actions need to be aligned. If you are saying one thing, but really thinking another, they’ll feel it and you’ll damage trust further. Don’t go there.

4. Make the approach – only when you’ve done the self-reflection and the alignment work, will you then approach the person you want to have an accountability conversation with. Use language that’s real and honest. For example…

“Thanks for making time to meet. This is a difficult conversation but I’m committed to reaching an outcome that we’re both completely satisfied with. Here are my expectations of you…”


“I know we both want the same outcome, I’m just having difficulty understanding your perspective. I think I might be missing something, can you say it another way to help me gain clarity?”

The most important thing is that you’ve dealt with your own ‘stuff’ prior to having the conversation, so that what you’re saying is aligned with what you’re thinking. 

5. Be present – throughout the conversation notice when you get plugged in (because you will), then catch yourself (which you can only do by practicing), notice your mind making the other person wrong (because it will), and keep returning to your commitment to the outcome.

Effective accountability conversations that strengthen trust, increase engagement and expand results, require equal measure…

– CONVICTION (to expectations) and COMPASSION (we are all imperfect)
– OUTCOME FOCUS (future goal) and PRESENCE (listening, asking questions)
– COMMITMENT (to the result) and CONNECTION (with the person).

With a desire to learn and consistency of practice, every leader can master the art of nuanced accountability conversations.

The most powerful, and most rare, leadership skill.