4 Steps to Having Productive Accountability Conversations

By Rich McLaughlin, M.A., McLaughlin Consulting Services – April 11, 2024
4 Steps to Having Productive Accountability Conversations

So many of the leadership teams I work with struggle with holding people account­able. It’s so hard for some that they would rather avoid having the conversation and instead come up with a workaround. The problem is that those leaders then start to lose credibility with the rest of the organization. One reason these conversations are so difficult is because both people are emotionally primed entering into it. The deliverer of the message is worried about the direction it may go, and the receiver can usually tell bad news is coming and can feel their defensiveness start to rise.

Like many conversations, it’s how you say things more so than what you say. You should avoid going into a “parent/child” type of conversation where you try to shame the other person into the behavior you’re looking for by using phrases such as “I’m really disappointed you…” (judging); “Why did you do it that way when I told you…” (accusing); or “What made you think that was a good idea…” (judging and shaming).

These types of phrases will often generate a “child” response such as, “Sorry boss, I won’t do it again.” (chagrined with eyes and head down). Worse, the other person can shut down and not even hear your full message. They experience an emotional hijacking “freeze” response and are unable to hear anything further.

Getting these types of conversations started on the right foot often comes down to tone and staying out of judgement. Having delivered many workshops on hard conversations, I have come up with the following structure that involves four steps and a pause.

  1. Make an appeal to “collaborate.” I’ll often say something like, “Help me with something…” or “I need your help with something…” or “Check my thinking on something because I want to make sure I’m not overreacting.”
  2. State the where, when and what (behavior) you saw. For example, “Remember the meeting we had two weeks ago about you needing to bring Sara up to speed before the next requirements meeting? That meeting was yesterday, and she told me you haven’t reached out to her at all.” 
  3. Explain the impact of that behavior on you, the team and/or the organization. For example, “I thought when we chatted, I made it clear why we need to get Sara up to speed ASAP. This slows the whole project down, especially if you will be rolling off in a month.” 
  4. Ask if your telling of events is accurate. Ask, “Does that make sense?” or “Is that fair?” or “Can you understand why I wanted to talk about this?”

At this point, you need to pause and see if he/she is willing to own their part of this mix-up. If you start the conversation tactfully, you’re hoping they step through the door and say, “Yeah, I can see why you wanted to talk.” Or, they may push back and get defensive, and you may need to start over at step one. This is about as far as you want to go in this conversation before you start the “where do we go from here” part. If they are not willing to own their behavior and how it contributed to this moment, they will not be ready for any “action planning.”

After step four, sit back and read their emotional state. Sometimes, you may have to end it there and say, “It looks like you still need to process this. Let’s pick it up tomorrow and we’ll figure out how to resolve this.” Or maybe they are ready to move right into the “where do we go from here” conversation. Rather than give them your action plan, ask them for their thoughts: “So, what do you think you need to do to get this right?” This approach makes it clear who needs to own this going forward.

I find when I use this structure it helps me have productive, tough conversations and people appreciate and respect me more. 

Richard McLaughlin

Richard McLaughlin, M.A., is a principal at McLaughlin Consulting Services.

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