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.

Conflicting goals make room for performance failures


Most people do not set out to fail. On the contrary, most of us regularly attempt to succeed; but at times we do fail none-the-less. The role of a supervisor is to get results through the efforts of other people, so an important question for supervisors is, “Why does a specific performance failure occur?” There are a lot of reasons - knowledge, skill, motivation, etc. - and key among them is something called “goal conflict”.

We live in a complex work-world with multiple competing demands. We must be safe, fast, cheap and valuable all at the same time. It is humanly impossible to make all of these goals #1 at the same time, so we make cost-benefit tradeoffs and “choose” which objective is the most important at the time given the pressures of the environment/culture that we are in. I may choose to “hurry” because of time pressure, but in so doing sacrifice safety and quality.

As a supervisor I need to understand the drivers behind employees’ performance failure before I can adequately help them become successful. What “tradeoffs” did the employee make that produced the failure? Did his desire to “please” the supervisor outweigh his calculation of his own skill-level? Did her perceived pressure to produce outweigh the thought to evaluate hazards associated with the task and take precautionary action?

Unless we as supervisors take the time to evaluate the conflicting goals that drive employees’ performance, we will be less effective in reducing the opportunity for failure.

The Safety Side Effect

Things Supervisors do that, Coincidentally, Improve Safety


Common sense tells us that leaders play a special role in the performance of their employees, and there is substantial research to help us understand why this is the case.  For example, Stanley Milgram’s famous studies of obedience in the 1960s demonstrated that, to their own dismay, people will administer what they think are painful electric shocks to strangers when asked to do so by an authority figure.  This study and many others reveal that leaders are far more influential over the behavior of others than is commonly recognized.  

In the workplace, good leadership usually translates to better productivity, efficiency and quality.  Coincidentally, as research demonstrates, leaders whose teams are the most efficient and consistently productive also usually have the best safety records.  These leaders do not necessarily “beat the safety drum” louder than others.  They aren’t the ones with the most “Safety First” stickers on their hardhats or the tallest stack of “near miss” reports on their desks; rather, their style of leadership produces what we call the “Safety Side Effect.”  The idea is this: Safe performance is a bi-product of the way that good leaders facilitate and focus the efforts of their subordinate employees.  But what, specifically, produces this effect?

Over a 30 year period, we have asked thousands of employees to describe the characteristics of their best boss - the boss who sustained the highest productivity, quality and morale.  This “Best Boss” survey identified 20 consistently recurring characteristics, which we described in detail during our 2012 Newsletter series.  On close inspection, one of these characteristic - “Holds Himself and Others Accountable for Results” - plays a significant role in bringing about the Safety Side Effect.  Best bosses hold a different paradigm of accountability.  Rather than viewing accountability as a synonym for “punishment,” these leaders view it as an honest and pragmatic effort to redirect and resolve failures.  When performance failure occurs, the best boss...

  1. consistently steps up to the failure and deals with it immediately or as soon as possible after it occurs;
  2. honestly explores the many possible reasons WHY the failure occurred, without jumping to the simplistic conclusion that it was one person’s fault; and
  3. works with the employee to determine a resolution for the failure.

When a leader approaches performance failure in this way, it creates a substantially different working environment for subordinate employees - one in which employees:

  1. do not so quickly become defensive when others stop their unsafe behavior
  2. focus more on resolving problems than protecting themselves from blame, and
  3. freely offer ideas for improving their own safety performance.

Deal with Employee Failure -- the SAFE Way

Have you ever worked for someone who seems to notice every small error you make (and points it out), but almost never says anything when you are successful?  We call this leadership style “The Persecutor” and we see it a lot in both industry and parenting.  We have learned by talking with Persecutors that they are trying to motivate people to improve by holding them accountable for their results, but the exact opposite actually occurs because of the way they do it. Employees become demotivated because there is no balance between positive and negative feedback, and because they feel disrespected in the process.  People need both correction (what we call “Redirection") for failure and positive feedback for success.  So how can you avoid persecution and create the results that you need?  We suggest that you use the following redirection guidelines when correcting performance.

  • Remain calm.  Emotions such as frustration and anger only make us less effective in thinking and communicating.  Most of the time those emotions are the result of a “guess” about why the person failed.  Avoid guesses and you will have much more control over your emotions.
  • Conduct the session in private.  One of your primary objectives is to reduce defensiveness so that you can get the employee to help you examine the reason(s) behind the failure and develop a “fix” for the future.  Calling someone out in public almost always leads to defensiveness, so make every effort to find a private location for this discussion.
  • Eliminate interruptions and distractions.  Gaining the full attention of the employee is critical for an effective conversation.  Make sure that you control as many distractions as possible and you will get much better attention from your employee.
  • Point out positive aspects of performance first, followed by identification of the inadequate performance.  Typically the employee will have had some success that you want to continue in the future.  Positive feedback helps to strengthen those behaviors, so take this opportunity to create repeated success with positive feedback.  Then point out the specific result, action, lack of action, etc. that you have identified as failure.  Avoid ambiguous terms such as bad attitude, unmotivated, etc.
  • Follow the SAFE* approach to giving feedback.
    • Step Up:  When you see failure, say something, but say it with respect.  If you don’t step up, then the things that have led to this failure will continue to create failure in the future and if you say it the wrong way (disrespectfully) you will create defensiveness and less desire for improvement going forward.
    • Ask:  Learn the real reason for the failure.  Was it motivation, ability, pressure, lack of support, etc?  Evaluate the total context that led to the failure before you come up with a plan for improvement.
    • Find a Fix:  Find a fix for the real reason for the failure.  Work with the employee to determine a way to create success in the future.  Don’t create the plan yourself, but rather create it in concert with the employee when possible.  This brings more ownership and more motivation for improvement.
    • Ensure the Fix:  Keep an eye on improvement and give feedback accordingly.  If the “fix” works and you observe success, then give positive feedback to strengthen performance.  If you observe failure, then work your way through the SAFE approach again until you find the real reason for failure and the right fix going forward.
*SAFE Skills are a component of The RAD Group’s PerformanceCOMPASSTM training.