5 Steps to Having an Accountability Conversation (Video)

By Cathy McCullough

Most of us just don’t like to have hard accountability conversations. Conversations in which you need someone to hear 5 Steps to Having an Accountability Discussionyou can be tough for a number of reasons, but in the end, it’s a leader’s job to have the uncomfortable conversations with team members. You can't build a high performance organization without this leadership skill. Whether you like it or not, you must master having a conversation that gets the point across that you need to see someone do something differently. The secret, then, is doing it in such a way as to build personal accountability (which, if accomplished, will minimize the number of times you have to have the same type of conversation with the same person). 

It’s important to have a framework to guide you through a hard discussion. Otherwise, responses from the individual might get you side-tracked from the key points you need him/her to hear. It’s important to stay true to the step you’re on and simply guide the person back to your initial question. At times, you might feel like a broken record, but keep pulling the person back to the question you initially asked. It is your job to make sure that your team is held accountable for their actions.

Hopefully, the steps below will help you increase the effectiveness of this type of conversation. If you want more in-depth knowledge on this, then read Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Ron McMillian, Al Switzler, and Joseph Grenny.

To that end, here’s one suggested flow for having a conversation that you might dread—but remember: It’s part of a leader’s job.

How to Have an Accountability Discussion

An “Umbrella” Step: Give yourself the “think time” necessary to go through each one of these steps before the conversation ever occurs. You need to clarify, in your own mind, what your answers are to each of the five steps. Know what you want, and guide the discussion accordingly. (And write down your answers to keep yourself from glossing over a step because you think you have the answer buried in your head.)

Step 1: The Framework. This step is all about setting the stage. You want to describe the situation or your concern, being as specific as possible. This takes some real thought on your part, and it’s essential that you give yourself the space to reflect on this.

  • Make a list of what it is that you need the person to do.
  • Narrow down your list to only the essential two or three things.
  • Craft your launch. How will you start off this accountability conversation so that you convey a focused approach as well as positive intent?

Step 2: Performance. You must be able to describe the specific behavior as clearly as possible. Avoid drawing conclusions here. Instead, focus on describing the behavior(s) that you’ve observed.

  • Write out the specific behaviors that have caused you to need to talk with this person. Note: This becomes “your story,” so write it as a narrative. It is, after all, your story that needs to be told to this person.
  • Have at least two or three specific examples that demonstrate situations in which the undesirable behaviors have occurred. Real life examples are hard to argue with, and these examples help demonstrate what you mean.

Step 3: Impact. So what? Who cares? Why are you even having this little get-together in the first place?

  • Be prepared to share the results, positive and/or negative, of this behavior.
  • What’s the impact?
  • Why does this matter?
  • What are some potential implications…
    • Positive: …if the behavior changes?
    • Negative: …if the needle doesn’t move enough in the right direction?

Step 4: Build Personal Accountability. This is absolutely the most important step of all because this is where you want the other person to begin to carry the conversation by creating his/her own solutions. During this step, you mainly ask questions. By asking questions, you are actually teaching the person to think. At this point, the conversation becomes a dialogue with you asking questions and the person doing the talking. You can't have team accountability without personal accountability!

  • Resist the temptation to “spoon feed” solutions to the person. If you do that, you minimize the impact and the point of the entire conversation.
  • Use the QBQ Method that’s been popularized by John G. Miller in his book, The QBQ: The Question Behind the Question. To that end:
    • Ask questions that begin with “What” or “How.”
    • Include a pronoun (i.e., you, I, we, us). Which pronoun you use depends on the situation, but be careful here. Saying “you,” for instance, makes it appear that you’re pointing your finger right at the person. However, there are times (such as if this is the 2nd or 3rd time you’ve had to have this conversation) where “you” might certainly be appropriate.
    • Quick examples of questions: What might you do differently in the future so that you can accomplish ...? How can you change your work habits so that you can meet deadlines in the future? How might we go about preventing this from occurring again? What are some ways you might better communicate, more specifically, with the team? How can I be a resource for you?, etc.)
  • Wait for responses; don’t “fill in” when there’s silence.
    • Instead: Repeat the question if needed.
  • Watch for someone to slip around an answer. S/He responds, but really doesn’t answer your question. Ask the same question again. (And again, if needed…)

Step 5: Next Steps. Always leave a conversation where you’re trying to build personal accountability in a way that’s designed to move the person toward accepting his/her own sense of accountability for changing what needs to be changed.

  • If needed, you can certainly add to the solutions the person offered in Step 4. Do that if the person missed something you need to add.
  • This last step helps you confirm what was heard. Therefore, ask the person something like, “What have we decided to do?” and/or “What agreements have we reached today?”
  • Confirm: “How much time should elapse between now and when we should get back together to talk about how things are going?” 

Accountable conversations help you build a culture where personal accountability is the expectation vs. the exception. Done well, these types of conversations are minimized, and you save yourself having to have a lot of them, all while teaching your people how to think more strategically about what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it. 

If you’re having to have too many of these types of conversations, or if people are, in your mind, just a frustration of doing business, then you have to ask: Is the problem with the person…or with you?  See real world accountability examples.

Download Team  Accountability Assessment

Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

Want more information on Team Accountability? Check out these additional resources:

The Five C's of Team Accountability

Team Accountability Assessment

Team Accountability Begins with Personal Accountability

Building Team Accountability: Job Scorecards

10 Signs of an Accountable Culture [Infographic]

Growing Accountability in Your Organization

Quick Tips for Building Accountability

5 Steps to Having an Accountability Discussion [Video]

Learn more about accountable leaders and teams.


Cathy McCullough


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images