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  • WSL Leadership

How to Hold People Accountable

I frequently see people shy away from taking on leadership roles or hesitate when it comes to holding others accountable. This is especially true in peer relationships or when the leader feels uncomfortable being the heavy who tells people they’re wrong. The subtext is that we equate holding people accountable with destroying relationships and creating a distant, hierarchical or antagonistic environment.

The reality is a lack of skills for holding people accountable well.

Accountability is a mix of making sure someone knows that their behavior needs to change and supporting them to improve their behavior without direct supervision in the future.

Have you ever had a friend tell you that you made a mistake or did something wrong AND they were still your friend afterward? Or maybe your friendship even grew or deepened from the experience? That is the power of holding people accountable done well.

We don’t all have the luxury of only having accountability conversations with good friends but we can approach those conversations with anyone in a way that maintains relationships and is firm and meaningful.

Another word for accountability that makes it clear a behavior change is needed is feedback. Plenty of people run away screaming from feedback because we’ve seen or been a part of situations where it definitely did not go well. At all.

My favorite tutorial on feedback is a TED talk by LeAnne Renninger called The Secret to Giving Great Feedback. It’s less than 5 minutes long but 100% actionable steps based on cognitive psychology research.

One memorable piece of Renninger’s TED talk is about what she calls “blur words” - these are words that lack clarity and also end up being confusing to the feedback recipient. For example, telling someone you want them to “take more initiative” might seem clear to you but on the recipient side, it’s lacking meaningful scope or parameters and ultimately isn’t very useful.

How about when you think you’ve been very clear with expectations (and the expectations are reasonable) and you’ve tried the giving feedback route and your expectations are not being met - how do you hold someone accountable in that situation?

I wish there were an easy step-by-step solution to account for all the nuance in these situations. The best I can do are offer some tips and guidelines that may be useful in deciding how to proceed:

It’s time to have a focused conversation (or series of conversations).

Do your homework first:

  • Check your assumptions - ask yourself if your expectations are clear and also have been actually articulated. What unspoken expectations may be in the mix?

  • Consider consequences for the behavior expectations not being met and relevant timelines (if you’re in an organization with an HR department consult with them on this).

  • Identify the consequences of the expectations actually being met and the impact this will have on the individual and others.

Gather more information:

  • Ask the other person open-ended curious questions. How do they see the situation? What is their motivation? What is their thought process/reasoning/goal? Emphasis on the open-ended and curious part here - if you ask “why do you keep doing this annoying thing?” you won’t get far. Try questions that start with “how” or “what” instead of “why” to open pathways for people to give meaningful answers.

Revisit expectations and consequences of expectations not being met:

  • Using information from your homework and information gathering is there a better way to state expectations?

  • Give examples of expectations not being met (examples that actually happened involving the other person)

  • Give examples of how you want the other person to meet expectations - what specifically you need to observe to know expectations are being met (including any relevant timelines).

  • Share consequences for expectations not being met.

Make a plan:

  • Check for understanding. Can the other person tell you what they need to do (and when) in order to meet expectations? Do they understand the consequences of not meeting expectations? Do they understand the consequences of meeting expectations?

  • Ask what support they need to make this behavior change happen.

  • Answer any questions they may have.

  • Set a time to check-in again with the other person about this situation.

Follow-up and follow-through

  • Check-in at the scheduled time and discuss progress.

  • Let the other person lead off this conversation with an assessment of how things are going on their end.

  • Follow through on the consequences of behavior expectations being met or not being met.

  • Schedule another check-in to make sure change has been made consistently or offer the next level of support (if needed).

No problem, right? Holding others accountable is something that is not always straightforward and I hope these guidelines can give you some structure to think it through.

I frequently work with leaders to support them through this process. It also comes up regularly in leadership masterminds as leaders wrestle with the balance of providing support and holding folks accountable. If you’re looking for more support on holding others accountable or other leadership challenges you’re facing feel free to email me ( and let’s start a conversation. This isn’t something you have to do or figure out on your own.

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