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Reframing Holding Your Team Accountable

This week we’re discussing setting expectations and holding folks accountable in the Institute. For many folks, holding people accountable and having those awkward “so you’re not doing things right” conversations is one of the most stressful parts of being a supervisor. In fact, people usually hate it so much they put it off and avoid it. The problem, of course, is that just builds the tension and drama and typically things get worse. So today, I want to help you reframe this concept of holding your team members accountable, so that it’s less awkward and stressful.

There are two main components of performance management – setting expectations and then holding people accountable for whether they’ve met those expectations. I’ve talked about setting expectations before, and quite frankly holding people accountable only works well if you’ve set clear expectations. In a nutshell, if expectations were unclear, it becomes very difficult to assess whether an employee hit the mark. That’s just a reminder for you, but not what I want to focus on today.

I want to dive into this concept of holding your team accountable for the expectations that have been set. And if you’re not actively having those conversations, you’re not managing your team. You’re just hoping things turn out the way you or others want. And sometimes you get lucky. Your team members do what needs to be done, and things seem to run smoothly. But what happens when you don’t get lucky? What happens when folks don’t meet your expectations? Well, what typically happens is you – and possibly other team members – get frustrated that Chris isn’t pulling their weight. There’s work that isn’t getting done, or needs to be redone, and resentment starts to build. All of that consumes a lot of time and energy you and your team probably don’t have.

Then you as the supervisor start going back and forth in your head about what to do about Chris. You know you SHOULD talk to them, but you think things like…

  • Blech, what an uncomfortable conversation. Yes, I SHOULD do it since I’m their supervisor, but how is that even fair? I’m doing my job, so why am I the one who has to go through all this drama just because Chris isn’t doing their job?

  • Ugh, I have way too much work to get done this week. I’m just going to have to talk to Chris next week, when I have more time.

  • What do I even do about Chris? Sure, I guess talk to them, but what do I say? What if they get defensive? What if they get mad? What if they blame me?

  • You know what, I’m going to go ask ____ about Chris. They’ll know what to do.

  • Hey, sure Chris kind of sucks. But I have five other people on my team who are rock stars, so it’s obviously not me or my supervision. Chris is the problem.

I’m sure you’ve had similar thoughts as you tried to decide what to do, as have I in those situations. But often at the same time you justify to yourself why you don’t really have time to do it now. I have also been guilty of avoiding talking to team members about their performance. I mean, it’s not the most pleasant thing and you do have so many other things you need to worry about, right? All this to say, I think most of us automatically think about those scenarios whenever someone talks about accountability. And they’re negative, right?

But here’s the thing, telling your team members that they’re not meeting your expectations is only HALF of the equation. I mean, what about all those folks on your team who are nailing it? Yes, you need to talk to underperformers about what’s going wrong, but you also need to let the people who are performing well that they’ve met or exceeded your expectations. Once you’ve set expectations, there always needs to be that follow up of whether those expectations were met. That’s what accountability really is.

When you only equate holding people accountable with failure, it becomes a very negative process. It’s something to be avoided. It makes you uncomfortable AND it makes your team uncomfortable, because every time there IS a discussion about performance it’s about what when wrong. That would be like if you were a professor, and you only gave folks grades on their assignments if they failed. Sure, you’d be relieved if you didn’t get your paper back, but you also wouldn’t really know how you were doing or how you could improve. Did you get an A+ and should just keep doing what you’re doing? Or did you get a C and have no idea whether you’re headed toward more success or failure. That’s stressful on everyone.

What if instead, you gave everyone consistent feedback on how they were doing? What if accountability wasn’t about difficult conversations, but simply about looking at what was clearly articulated as an expectation and discussing whether that was accomplished? Yes, that might mean a conversation with Chris about how their reports are missing X and Y. But it can just as easily mean a conversation with Alex about how they not only included all the information necessary, but also added in some information that helped the committee see things in a different light. Holding people accountable doesn’t have to be stressful. It just needs to be consistent. And when you reframe it in this way, your brain is less likely to view it as something stressful that it should avoid.

When you rarely give folks feedback on their work, any comment – positive or negative – holds a huge amount of weight. If you suddenly complement Alex about their work, you probably feel good about that exchange. But other people will wonder what’s wrong with their work. I mean, you didn’t complement them, so there must be something lacking, right? Or say you suddenly complain to Chris that they’re not doing ____ correctly. Yes, it’s your job to give them that information, but if it wasn’t timely, they’re going to wonder why you didn’t tell them the first time they did it. All this wondering is going to take up a lot of folk’s energy, which means less energy to use on the things you need them to do.

So, what are you supposed to do? I completely understand that you’re busy. Adding on yet another thing, probably feels overwhelming, right? Now, I’ve done previous articles about how important it is to meet with your folks on a regular basis. If you’re already doing that, great! Just add this right into your regularly scheduled meetings. Add this into your agenda and make sure you’re doing it for projects of any size. After all, if you can’t tell someone you need a small thing done a different way, how the BLEEP are you doing to do it for something more significant?

If you aren’t having consistent meetings, you need to. And I’m not saying this to be bossy or because I’m unaware of exactly how swamped you are. I’m saying it because that’s what the research shows. Gallup has found that effective supervisors have intentional conversations with their direct reports on a weekly basis. Now those conversations only need to be 15 minutes, but they need to happen. If you want your team to be engaged and productive, that’s what it takes. And just to clarify, being an effective supervisor isn’t just about doing your job well. When you are effective, it means your team is more effective.

And let’s be honest. If you’re not doing that now and everyone feels stressed and overwhelmed, that means what you’re doing now isn’t working. If working harder was going to fix things, things would be better by now. There’s a reason you’re reading this, right? Instead of trying to do more things, refocus your energy into better managing your team. If you can start doing that effectively, your team will be more productive, and you can either delegate the things on your plate or discover that certain things don’t have to be done for you to get the results that you want. Einstein said – or at least this quote is attributed to him, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” I guarantee that this is a better investment of your time than frantically trying to do all the things. Just give it a try.

Okay, so whether you’ve been having consistent meetings or have just been persuaded by my brilliant argument, what does holding people accountable in those meetings look like? I’ll walk you through two quick examples in a second, but when you break it down there are just three steps:

1. Comparing the expectations to the end results.

2. Reflecting on why they got the results they did.

3. Focusing on future outcomes.

Now ideally, you’ll use a Strengths framework for these conversations, but don’t skip this process if you and your team haven’t taken CliftonStrengths. As I’ve said in previous articles, it just gives you and your team member very tangible ways to reflect on the situation and create any necessary action plans.

Let me walk you through a few examples. We’ll cover Chris nailing the assignment and dropping the ball. Keep in mind that this should just be part of your agenda, so I’m skipping the pleasantries. This doesn’t have to be the first thing you discuss. In fact, we recommend discussing new or in process tasks first then rolling into completed tasks. I’m going to focus on how to start these conversations vs a whole script. Just keep in mind that this should be a conversation. You want to both acknowledge what happened and explore why it happened…

Chris Nailed It!

Okay, so let’s talk about the student retention report you just turned in. Great work. You got it done by the deadline and met all the expectation that we’d discussed over the past few weeks. When I gave you this assignment, we talked about how you needed to include the retention stats from last fall and identify any patterns you noticed about freshmen students who decided to leave. We had talked about using indicators like student housing vs. commuter students, participation in student activities, and midterm grades. Not only did you clearly outline how those factors impacted retention, but you also pulled in information about freshman seminar performance. That was a strategic move and it’s going to help us catch students more quickly next semester. Which Strengths do you think helped you navigate this assignment so successfully? What made you think to look at freshman seminar information?

Chris Dropped the Ball

Okay, so let’s talk about the student retention report you just turned in. When we discussed this assignment over the past few weeks, I was very clear that I needed it by Monday at noon, so I would have time to review it for my meeting on Tuesday morning. When I got back from lunch Monday, I had to call you and ask where it was, and you told me you needed until the end of the day to complete it. That meant I had to bring it home to review it, which I hadn’t planned. Then when I looked it over, I realized that it was missing several components. When I gave you this assignment, we talked about how you needed to include the retention stats from last fall and identify any patterns you noticed about freshmen students who decided to leave. We had talked about using indicators like student housing vs. commuter students, participation in student activities, and midterm grades. You reported the retention numbers and midterm grades, but you didn’t include any other factors.

Let’s break down what happened, so we can both understand where you went off course and develop a plan to keep this from happening again. First, can you help me understand why it wasn’t done by noon? Which one of your talents might have gotten in your way to meeting this deadline? Okay, and which Strength do you think you might lean into in the future if that gets in your way again?

Okay, now let’s process what happened with the report itself. We discussed all the components I needed you to include in previous meetings. Can you help me understand what happened? What got in your way to getting this task done as assigned? Did one of your talents hinder you? When you think about your Top 5, which Strength would help you navigate this better in the future?

Those examples are just to get you started. Remember, whether you have an employee who’s nailing it or missing the mark, your goal is to let them know where they landed as compared to the expectations and help them process why that happened. If it’s a positive outcome, you want that individual to know how they got there so they can lean into those Strengths in similar situations. If it’s a negative outcome, you want that individual to understand what got in their way and how they might better navigate future situations.

And after this discussion, just move onto the next agenda item. When this is just part of your conversation, it won’t seem as confrontational or dramatic as a stand-alone, “Chris, we need to talk” meeting. Remember, this is all a process of better managing your team member’s performance. If there’s a similar task in the future, make sure you bring up this conversation when you’re covering the new expectations. If they nailed it, remind them, “Chris, I remember how you leaned into your Analytical Strength in the retention report last week. I’m sure it will help you with this task, as well.”

If they had issues, you want to remind them of the plan they came up with to avoid the previous missteps. It’s not, “Chris, remember last time your WOO got in your way and you got so distracted talking to people you missed the deadline.” You want to focus on helping them succeed. Something like, “Chris I know last time you mentioned your WOO tends to distract you. What talent did you say could help you stay on track when your WOO get’s out of control?” And of course, you can ask them if there’s anything you can do to help them implement this new plan. Again, this isn’t about rubbing past mistakes in their face. It’s about normalizing making mistakes and learning from them so you improve.

Those are just a few examples of how you can easily incorporate these discussions into your one-on-one meetings. Even if it still seems stressful to get this rolling, once you get a system down, it’s going to benefit everyone. Everyone will be less stressed because feedback will be consistent. Your team will know where they stand. And you won’t have to worry about when to talk to Chris. You’ll talk to them at the same time you always talk to them. It won’t be a weird, scary stand-alone meeting. It will be in the context of your regular check-ins, because that’s how you effectively manage your team’s performance.

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