Stepping up to an Accountability Discussion


As we discussed in our March Newsletter, we often fail to “Step Up” to accountability discussions even though we know that speaking up can mean the difference between good and bad results, even life and death in some cases. Why is that? Flawed Approaches

It’s usually because we have spoken up in the past and the other person either became defensive or angry or they didn’t change their performance. This was probably because we used one of three flawed approaches.

Female boss pointing a pen at her male employee

Charm We may have attempted to be really nice or charming so that the person would want to change. In other words, we tried to motivate the person to “want” to change to please us.

Push We may have attempted to push or force the person to change by using whatever power or authority that we had. Again we are attempting to motivate the person to change, but this time out of fear.

Neither of these approaches work reliably to change poor performance for the long-term, especially if the reason behind the failure is not a motivation issue. (We will have much more to say about how to determine the “real” reason for the person’s failure in our May & June Newsletter discussions).

Retreat And this leads to the third flawed approach which is to retreat or say nothing because it wouldn’t make any difference anyway. We have tried the “charm” and “push” methods and since neither worked it must be because the person is flawed… what is the use. It is now on them to change and if they don’t, then it is their fault, not mine.

Play it S.A.F.E.

Effective redirection of performance - which produces longterm behavior change - is possible and we have broken the process down into four practical steps.

Step Up


Find a Fix

Ensure the Fix

So let’s look in more detail at how to Step Up and effectively enter that accountability discussion so that you don’t get defensiveness and/or fail to get improvement.

Step up

Our Step Up objective is to engage the person at the right time, about the right issue, in the right way, to change the poor performance.

Let’s first address the basics: Who & When and then we will examine How.

Who? The answer: You!

You can redirect anyone if you do it with the right intent (to help the person improve) and in the right way.

When? Our first reaction is to do so immediately, but there may be situations in which you should wait. If the person is doing something that presents an imminent risk (e.g. could cause them to get hurt), then intervene immediately.

Immediate redirection is usually best unless it will distract the person and put them in danger, or unnecessarily put the person on the defensive (when others are watching, for example).

So if there is no imminent danger and the person can’t pay attention or intervention could lead to “loss of face” then you should probably wait until the person can give attention to the discussion without being embarrassed by the conversation.

How? We suggest the use of three skills that will create the right environment and minimize or eliminate defensiveness.

1. State the Problem The problem statement includes two components:

“What the person is doing” & “Why it is wrong”.

When stating what the person is doing it is important to focus on the actions or results, and NOT the person. Your goal is not to blame the person for the failure, thus creating defensiveness, but rather to have a discussion around the behavior/actions that are creating the failure.

Stating why the action is wrong helps the person understand more about the context of their failure.

For Example “You haven’t turned in your report (What) and the company president needs that information for the board meeting in 10-minutes (Why)”.

Notice in this example that there is nothing about “Why” the person is failing. We don’t know that yet, so any reference to it would simply be a “Guess”. Guessing almost always leads to defensiveness and should therefore be avoided. We suggest that you always employ the next skill instead.

2. Stick to the Facts Facts are what you see and hear, and what can be seen and heard by others as well. They are not up for debate.

In the example above, it is a fact that the person either has or has not turned in the report.

It is a verifiable fact that the president needs the information contained in the report.

It is a verifiable fact that the board meeting will begin in 10-minutes.

It is a “Guess” that the person is too lazy to finish the report and suggesting that he is unmotivated would most likely lead to defensiveness.

Stick to the facts and you will have a much better chance of creating an environment that will allow for a calm evaluation of the real cause(s) of the failure when you get to the “Ask” step. However, if you still get defensiveness you can use the next skill to help diffuse it.

3. Use a Do/Don’t Statement We talked about this skill in our March Newsletter discussion of why we tend to avoid intervention discussions in the first place.

Remember, defensiveness is a perceived attack on the person's reputation, dignity, or both.

So when you sense that the person has misunderstood your intent or when you have failed to stick to the facts and made a guess, you can simply state what you 'do' mean and/or what you 'don’t' mean.

For Example “I don’t mean to imply that you are lazy at all, but we do need to get the report to the boss in time for his meeting.”

Remember, our objective is to create a setting where you and the individual can calmly explore why the failure occurred and what can be done to correct it going forward. Eliminating defensiveness is a key to making that happen.

What's the Point?

Once you have "Stepped Up" to the accountability discussion and entered it without creating defensiveness, you are now ready to explore why the failure occurred in the first place.

This requires an understanding of a contextual model of causation which we will explore in our May Newsletter.