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Having Difficult Conversations and Holding People Accountable

May 26, 2022 | Blog | 3 minute read

One of my coaching clients asked me the most common issue that I see with clients. After a moment of reflection, I responded "having the difficult conversations with people that work for them and holding them accountable."

It is certainly not an easy thing to tell someone that they are not measuring up to the expectations of the job, but it is a requirement of every executive. Rebecca Knight's HBR article "How to Handle Difficult Conversations at Work" does a masterful job of offering principles on how to deliver a tough message while still maintaining a relationship with the person involved. Here are some that are most helpful:

  • Be in a calm mood before the conversation. Take a break. Breath
  • Slow down the pace of the conversation. Find the right words to ensure that the person is listening
  • Be constructive by suggesting other solutions or alternatives

Being born and raised in an Italian household in New Jersey might make having these kinds of discussions less daunting for yours truly, but the task is the same. I have learned over the years to "dial it back" and avoid the "full frontal assault" that was the accepted approach on the East Coast. Here are some of the tips that I have found to work successfully.

Set expectation early

Let everyone know early that you have a standard for performance and behavior that are non-negotiable. If this step is missed, then you are the problem and not your underperforming individual or individuals

Do not wait to deliver the message

If you think you have a problem, you do. Address this quickly so that you do not fall further behind. Bad news does not get better with time and everyone around you knows that a change needs to be made. They want to know why you are not addressing it and quickly.

Only reference personal observations

You are the one who sets the expectations, and you need to be the one who evaluates the performance. This is especially important for behavioral issues. Referencing something that someone told you will not get the message across.

Discuss options for improvement

Be constructive and show the path to success. Offer to work with the individual 1:1 or get additional help.

If necessary, discuss consequences if no improvement

In some circumstances, the situation is so dire that the person needs an incentive or appropriate motivation to make significant changes. That may include demotion or termination

Be compassionate, but do not be afraid to make your position clear. It does the person nor the organization any good to have someone in the wrong job and not pulling their weight. There is a high probability that he or she already knows that they are failing, and you will be giving them permission to move to a job where they can be successful again. Either in your company or another one.

Here is a fitting example of WHY leaders need to have direct conversations regarding accountability

I just rewatched the 1949 movie "Twelve O'clock High" starring Gregory Peck which chronicles how to address an underperforming B-17 squadron early in WWII. Peck quickly diagnosed the problem as leadership, and then was tapped as the new skipper. He inherited a turnaround situation and made quick decisions on replacing leadership. Next, he focused on the mission and its importance. Anything that took away from achieving the mission needed to be addressed, and quickly. If the navigator got the squadron late over the target, get a new navigator. If a bombardier could not hit the proverbial "broad side of the barn" get a replacement. A key point he stressed was pride in the unit and how it performed relative to the rest of the groups in achieving the expectations of senior leaders.

There is no direct comparison to a wartime life and death situation, and the business world of the twenty-first century, but the leadership principles are the same.

  • Achieving the mission is everything
  • Having the right people in the right seats all the time is imperative
  • Having pride in the collective achievements trumps individual results

You are in business to achieve any number of key outcomes and results. The best strategy in the world is not worth much if you do not have the best people accountable for implementing that strategy. As the leader, it is your responsibility to ensure that your team is operating effectively. How you get there is an individual choice. Taking the direct approach will get you there quicker.

There is an adage about going around or over the mountain to get to the other side. Going around might be less risky but going over the top gets you there quicker. And the view from the top is so much better!!!

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