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Opinion: How to handle employees who ignore accountability

Smart Ways Series

Posted online

Editor’s note: This is a follow-up to the October Business Shifts column, “Instill healthy accountability with these 7 ideas.”

It’s serious when an employee isn’t taking ownership for results. It’s even more serious when they still won’t take ownership after being confronted by their supervisor.

In recent months, I’ve talked with numerous clients struggling with this issue. Surprisingly, it’s not only the marginal employees who are causing an accountability problem but also good performers.

Some human resources managers blame employee disengagement for a low accountability work ethic. Although it’s a tempting scapegoat, disengagement is not the cause.

I think the more likely cause is an obsession with collaboration that gets deeply embedded into company values and employee messaging. When leaders place too much emphasis on team goals, initiatives or team recognition without an appropriate level of emphasis on individual contribution, challenges such as insufficient accountability, conflict, recurring production problems and lower morale will surface.

One way to prevent this from happening is to make sure that your company’s culture and values strike a good balance between collaboration and individual contribution.

When you do have an employee who’s resisting accountability, try these eight tips:

1. Assess whether keeping the employee is wise. Ask yourself three questions: Is the employee’s inattention negatively impacting the attitudes or work of others? Is the employee working against your leadership or the culture? Would it be better to replace them, or invest in coaching the individual?  

2. Ask the employee to state your expectations the best they can. Why? Recent Gallup research confirms that only half of all employees clearly know what their managers expect of them. Yet, most managers believe their people are fully informed. Deal with accountability when you know people fully understand what’s required.

3. Explore the possibility of any organizational shortcomings. If work processes or the culture have negatively affected the employee’s efforts in some way, resolve these obstacles together.

4. Determine if the lack of accountability is an ability or attitude problem. Try asking, “What’s keeping you from doing the things we need done the way we want them done?” Ability issues are commonly improved upon through training, but an attitude issue can be impossible to alter.

5. Be specific. Make sure you speak about specific instances and not to your own judgments. Using expressions such as, “you don’t care” or “you’re not trustworthy,” are judgments and will possibly be offensive. Instead state specific issues such as “you made multiple errors,” “missed deadlines” or “quality had to be reworked.” Specific issues can be corrected.

6. Explain the impact. Tell the person how their teammates perceive the behavior and how it affects everyone’s performance. This appeals to their personal sense of team commitment, and it’s a powerful motivator for most employees.

7. Stress change – or else. If the negligence is not due to factors such as insufficient training or a lack of resources, state the adjustments you expect and the consequences if they don’t make changes.

8. Set a deadline for seeing new results and follow up. The employee must know that you consider the lack of taking accountability very seriously and it will not be tolerated indefinitely.

Excellent companies have high-performing teams with people who embody taking ownership.

A manager can have a positive influence on employees by handling accountability discussions effectively, and by stressing the importance of workforce collaboration with individual contribution.

Consultant and professional speaker Mark Holmes is president of Springfield-based Consultant Board Inc. and He’s also the author of “The Five Rules of Megavalue Selling.” He can be reached at


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