Thoughts for Leaders: 5 Reasons Why Holding Others Accountable Might Feel Awkward (and how to overcome them to get results!)  

“Holding Others Accountable” is a challenge for many leaders regardless of how much experience they have. The good news is once you “get it”, you GET IT. You can’t un-learn it, and it’s one of the most valuable competencies to master.

More good news? I’m pretty sure it’s not genetic.

Sure, it may be naturally easier for some, but I believe everyone is capable of learning and developing this skill. So if you haven’t had your ‘aha moment’ with accountability yet, don’t write yourself off! Read through the 5 Roadblocks I witness most often and see if you can relate… they’re probably not what you expect!

*But wait: Before we start we need to make sure we’re addressing the right problem. Do you have an accountability problem? Or do you have the wrong people on the bus?

My favorite quote on this subject is from Jim Collins’ “Good to Great”:

“The good-to-great leaders understood three simple truths. First, if you begin with “who,” rather than “what,” you can more easily adapt to a changing world. If people join the bus primarily because of where it is going what happens if you get ten miles down the road and you need to change direction? You’ve got a problem. But if the people are on the bus because of who else is on the bus, then it’s much easier to change direction. “Hey, I got on this bus because of who else is on it; if we need to change direction to be more successful, fine with me.” Second, if you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away. The right people don’t need to be tightly managed or fired up; they will be self-motivated by the inner drive to produce the best results and to be part of creating something great. Third, if you have the wrong people, it doesn’t matter whether you discover the right direction; you still won’t have a great company. Great vision without great people is irrelevant. “


Be real with yourself. If you’ve got the wrong people on the bus you need to start there!


So for our purposes let’s assume we’re dealing with the right team:


  1. Holding Others Accountable Might Feel Awkward IF: You’re not sure if what you’re holding them to is really important.

“Is this important?” is the first question we need to ask.

“Why?” is the second… and the third, fourth and fifth.  Six Sigma calls this the “5 Why” approach. It’s a simple and effective tactic for identifying “root cause”.

It is going to awkward and near impossible to hold your team to something that you do not wholeheartedly believe is important. If you don’t believe it, they won’t believe it, and then you’re dead in the water. So you need to dig to find the important nugget… and it’s usually not the number/aspect you start with.

For example: Let’s say your sales team’s quota is to make 50 calls per week and you want to hold them accountable to this. You need to ask yourself if the “50 calls” is the most important piece. Your thought process may sound like this:

Is “50 calls” important?  – Yes

Why? – Because I know my sales reps average 10 calls per presentation and they need to make 5 presentations per week.

Why? – Because one out of every 5 presentations results in a sale and they need to hit one sale per week.

Why? – If they do less than 5 presentations they are not likely to hit their sale.

Consider: Are the 50 calls important? Or is the 1 sale per week important? If they consistently hit the 1 sale per week by making 47 calls per week, is that acceptable?

This could (and should) go on and on…


Keep asking why and self-questioning until you’re stuck – until you arrive at your most essential piece.


The behind-the-scenes work and self-talk that sets the framework for Holding Others Accountable is often overlooked. Very few people are effective at holding someone accountable to something they don’t believe in or fully understand. That’s not personal! That’s universal!

Work out your “Is this important?” first and foremost. Write it out and/or ask a co-worker to challenge you through it. Just keep asking “why”.


  1. Holding Others Accountable Might Feel Awkward IF: You believe that “Accountability Conversations” and “Discipline” are the same…

You’re not disciplining someone each time you challenge them or hold them accountable. These instances should feel VERY different.

Discipline should be short, concise, and generally one-sided. Discipline may be necessary is a commitment is missed repeatedly, but it’s not where we start.

Let’s imagine you are my Direct Report:

An Accountability Conversation is just that – a conversation. It is a two way street where we talk about the ways which you’ll commit to taking action on the abovementioned IMPORTANT task.

For an Accountability Conversation, we’re on the same team. Our interests are aligned. We both agree that the task is important and we make a plan to succeed.

You may have questions about WHY the task is important (which is the reason I need to be sure I have the answers!) That’s OK! Your questions are valid. I had to question it too otherwise I wouldn’t be strong enough to hold you to it!

This conversation might be long, especially if we’re new to each other or new to Accountability, because we both need to walk away feeling confident and committed.

While we’re both feeling engaged and inspired I need to ask you an important question in an empathetic tone. I say:  “You know, this plan really sounds great and I think we’re going to nail it, but to be sure I’m holding up my end of the bargain, if I feel like I hear you making excuses about any of this or if I feel like you’re not living up to your potential in the areas we’re talking about, how do you want me to address that with you?”

Boom. Accountability game changer.

It should really be smooth sailing from here on out (although we have 3 points left, so read on…)


  1. Holding Others Accountable Might Feel Awkward IF: You’re more concerned with their immediate comfort than their long term success.

I’ll be blunt on this one: It’s not fair to NOT hold people accountable. It’s not fair to ‘let it slide’. No matter whom you lead or in what capacity it’s your job to develop them and help them to succeed. If you’re not down with that, please stop leading.  


If I know the task is important and I know that Accountability does not equate to Discipline, there shouldn’t be a lot of discomfort to begin with BUT sometimes (for example) my Tuesday afternoon would just go smoother if I let you slide when I see you not upholding an IMPORTANT obligation.

Bottom line? If I know it’s important it’s not fair for me to turn a blind eye – so we might have a slightly uncomfortable conversation. I’m doing it for your benefit. Your long term success is more important to your immediate comfort (and my immediate comfort for that matter).

If I watch you breaking a commitment and I want to say something but instead I think  ‘I am so annoyed by this but I don’t know if I really want to confront him… he might get defensive… and it’s almost 5 o’clock and… excuse, excuse, excuse’ you’ll know what’s up. Not to get too esoteric here but if that’s my mental talk-track, my energy will inevitably be different towards you. And if my energy is different and I don’t address it with you, I break our trust. Not completely or irreparably – but I cause damage. So the next Accountability Conversation will be just a little bit less impactful… and so on…

I am teaching you how to treat me. I am teaching you how our relationship works. I’m teaching you a little about how the world works – and if I am not holding up my end of the bargain and challenging you to keep your commitment then I am not teaching you a lesson that will serve you well. I am not being fair.


  1. Holding Others Accountable Might Feel Awkward IF: You make it personal

Accountability is not personal.

Discipline is not personal either.

Business is not personal.

Here’s when it will feel personal:

  • When I don’t know if the task is truly important
  • When I have not set clear expectations
  • When I dodge the follow up conversations as I see you not upholding your commitment
  • When I am inconsistent in my message and/or methods
  • When I haven’t done the behind-the-scenes work to really adopt the ‘impersonal’ aspect of it all

This could potentially be confusing because I’ve said it’s my job to be fair and develop you and teach you to succeed… and it could be argued that there’s an emotional feel to that, but here’s what I mean:

If you said you were going to make five presentations and you made three – YOU, as a person, are not a failure.  Your performance may not be acceptable, but I know your performance is not your character. You’re not a bad person. Neither am I. This is not personal.


  1. Holding Others Accountable Might Feel Awkward IF: You have not set the stage

This point may be belabored by now but that’s OK: it’s critical.

Expectation setting is paramount in every relationship and interaction.

People generally do not like surprises, they don’t want to be caught off guard, and they don’t want to be unaware of the rules. You can say or do almost anything (legal and ethical of course) if you just give people the heads-up that you’re going to do it.

I recommend starting this conversation on day one if you have the luxury of writing on a blank slate. If not, it’s really never too late! Either way will require strength and consistency from you.

Make a promise to those you lead that you will only hold them accountable for things you genuinely believe are important and are in their greatest good. Tell them it is your commitment to them and their development never to ‘turn a blind eye’ or ‘let it slide’ because those approaches do not make them better. Make it safe and prepare them: there WILL be times when they miss on a commitment. You’re going to speak with them about it. It WON’T be personal. And so long as they prove that they’re the right person to be on the bus, you’ll work through it, set a new goal, learn and be better for it.

And then keep your word.


Create a Culture of Accountability and your results will take care of themselves.

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