Why We Fail to Hold Others Accountable


Have you ever failed to hold someone accountable for poor performance? Perhaps it was a server in a restaurant who failed to provide good service. Perhaps it was an employee who didn’t meet stated expectations. If you are like us and the thousands of participants in our Performance Management in the Workplace™ and PerformanceCompass® classes over the last 30+ years, the answer is a resounding “YES”!

So why do we often fail to step up to the conversation needed to hold another person accountable for failure?

Female boss pointing a pen at her male employee

Well, there are probably a lot of reasons, but a research project that we conducted in 2011 sheds a lot of light on a couple of those reasons. Our research project focused on one form of workplace performance failure (unsafe actions), but the results serve as a model for any form of failure in the workplace.

The question that we posed to more than 2,600 employees was, “When you see someone doing something that is unsafe and choose not to intervene in what they are doing, what is usually the reason?”

We asked this question (and several others) to both supervisors and non-supervisors with a negligible response difference between the two groups.

Survey Says? The two primary reasons that respondents gave for not intervening (i.e. not holding the other person accountable) when they see something unsafe:

  1. The other person would become defensive or angry
  2. It would not make a difference.

These two reasons indicate a common, underlying problem. Namely, a large number of employees, including supervisors, do not hold others accountable when they see something unsafe because they either are or believe themselves to be incapable of doing so effectively. They do not believe that they can intervene in a way that stops and sustainably changes the other person’s unsafe behavior, while also preserving a respectful working relationship.

Anecdotally, when we ask supervisors in our training classes why at times they don’t step up to hold their employees accountable for other forms of performance failure, they give us the same two reasons.

Reason #1: Defensiveness All of us, at some time, have been defensive and have experienced defensiveness on the part of others. Defensiveness does not occur because of the words that are used, but because of the interpretation of the intent behind the words.

If you, or the other person interpret the intent as an attempt to harm dignity, reputation, or both, then defensiveness is most likely to occur.

Think about it; when you think someone is out to harm your dignity or reputation, don’t you become defensive and either shoot back at the person, or retreat with your feelings hurt? If you do, then you are normal.

The Solution Successfully handling defensiveness in others is critical to having the confidence to step up to accountability conversations. We suggest a simple tool/skill to help you deal with defensiveness and we call it a “do/don’t statement”.

When you sense that the other person has misinterpreted your intent then just clarify what you really intended. For example, “I don’t mean to imply that you are incompetent. I do want to make sure that we get the results that were expected.”

Notice that the order of the “do” and the “don’t” doesn’t really matter as long as you clarify your “real” intent. Of course if your real intent was to harm dignity or reputation, then an apology might be in order.

Reason #2: It would not make a difference Most of the time we don’t speak up because we have failed in our attempt to get improvement before and assume that we will fail again. This is because we have not helped the person “find a fix” for the real cause of their failure.

Stay Tuned We will talk about this in more detail in a future newsletter because there are several skills required to accurately understand the real reason(s) behind the failure and thus find a fix that will create sustained success. For now please understand that there is a simple, easy to use set of skills that will create success in accountability conversations and help create sustained performance improvement in others.

What's the Point?

While there are probably other reasons why we don’t speak up when we observe failure of all types, the two primary reasons both have to do with our doubt that we can either successfully deal with defensiveness or get sustained improvement.

Both of these reasons have associated skills that can predictably lead to success.