Employee engagement requires "difficult" conversations (sometimes)

Aug 21, 2014
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“How do you hold people accountable or punish bad results and unmet deadlines in a professional manner, especially in a small family business where employees I’m responsible for have more experience than me?”






That’s a good question. As a leader, you get what you tolerate. People do not repeat a behavior unless it is rewarded. If you fail to hold people accountable you are by default rewarding them for poor performance with your silence. Often when you set the right expectations and people are clear on what is required you can improve employee engagement.

As a manager, the key things you need to hold people firmly accountable for include:

Many years ago I read a book called Fierce Conversations which provided some good guidelines for having these “challenging” types of conversations. The book is based on the fundamental truth that most of the time we have polite conversations rather than real ones. We talk about things that are safe rather than the things that really need to be talked about. Fierce conversations are not about being aggressive. Rather, they are about about having moral courage, making clear requests, and taking action.

Here is my take on a framework you could use:

Open the discussion with respect.

Let people know that you value them as a person and you value their contribution.

Reinforce accountability.

Firmly let people know that everyone is expected to honor their commitments to the team, e.g.

“When you enter a due date for a Task, think of it as being like a promise you are making to everyone in the team. In order to build a high performance culture, we need to be able to trust each other to do what we say we are going to do. That includes everyone from the CEO to the newest team member.”

No surprises policy.

“I appreciate that sometimes things come up that can cause delays, so if that happens let’s make sure we note the reason (e.g. in the description field of the Goal or Task) and inform the team as soon as possible. No surprises! We don’t want to wait to find out at the next meeting that someone didn’t get honor their commitments.

Extending due dates should be the exception, not the rule. When you enter a due date for a Task think it through first. Give the team a due date we can count on, and that you are willing to be held accountable for, because we are counting on you to get it done.

Likewise when setting Goals. Give us a “green” target level of KPI performance that we can count on you delivering nine times out of ten.

We want everyone to finish each week with their KPIs in the green, and their Tasks done on time. We all want to feel like winners every week, and go home with our heads held high, knowing that we had a good week, and for our good performance to be clearly reflected on our RESULTS dashboard.”


Accountability is meaningless without consequencesWhilst I think being asked why something hasn't been done in front of one's peers is punishment enough, I have observed some companies who meter out small “punishments” to people who do not get their Tasks done on time. Perhaps they have to wash the dishes that week, or maybe they have to put $5 into the social fund. Whatever it is, they make it fun but attach just enough pain to the consequence so that people do not want to make a weekly habit of missing deadlines or not meeting their numbers.

If poor performance becomes a habit, here are some suggestions for what to do when an employee is struggling.

Tip: You will know you have built a winning culture when your team starts holding people accountable for performance at your weekly meetings, rather than waiting for the leader to say something. 

By Stephen Lynch