Welcome back to the Culture Hacker blog series on how to positively influence the mindset and attitude of associates. For the past few weeks, we have been discussing performance enablement. Let’s finish the conversation by talking about managers’ ability and willingness to have the tough conversations and hold team members accountable.

The Importance of Accountability


There are many work environments, especially within unions, where people believe that there is no point in formal disciplinary action because nothing will happen anyway. Committing to discipline can be tough, but if leaders choose not to hold people accountable when it is needed, then not only do they give up one of their most important responsibilities as a leader, but they also give up on their people. 5% of staff today don’t really care about the brand, business, customers, or leaders. They do not perform. Without much reflection, a manager would already know which team members we’re discussing. Now, if there is no accountability – no matter how small – then leaders are telling the rest of the team that underperforming does not matter and that there are no consequences for bad performance.

One of the most dangerous situations in an organization is when there is a lack of real recognition for the best people and no accountability for the worst. Let’s say 20% of the team members are superstars and 5% of the people should not be there. That means without recognition and accountability that 75% of the staff will underperform simply because there is no recognition for exceeding expectations and there is no repercussion for doing badly. Conversely, with recognition and accountability, that same 75% will perform up; they may not reach superstar status, but they will certainly perform better than the alternative.

There is a great quote that reads, “When we avoid difficult conversations we trade short-term discomfort for long-term dysfunction.” What a great way to sum up what happens when we fail to hold people accountable. But, let’s address that short-term discomfort and how to best be more confident in formal disciplinary actions.

Barriers to Action


In January 2002, Harvard Business Review released a study of 239 companies that found that high-performing organizations are 33% more likely to take deliberate action against average performers than moderately performing companies. The study found that the number one reason managers did not react to an associate’s bad performance is understandably an emotional one. We are unwilling to move on people with whom we have worked with for a number of years or who have contributed to the company for a long time.

The second most common reason was the fear of litigation or having to deal with the unions. Other reasons included not knowing what to do, not knowing how to do it, and failing to understand how critical conducting formal disciplinary action really is. Managing average players is as important to a department’s success as selecting and energizing the best players. Holding associates accountable is not about being mean or tough – it’s about being relentlessly focused on performance.

So, how do we have these tough conversations, and what is the best way to approach employees in need of direction? First of all, check with the Human Resources team for their rules of engagement. Most companies will have a detailed process and forms to be used when giving formal feedback. Each business is slightly different when it comes to the process, but the most important thing is that there is a process.

Rules for Engagement


When it comes to having those tough disciplinary conversations, here are my rules for engagement to think about during the process:

  • First of all, pick a setting that is private and allows for two-way conversation. In some instances, where the conversations are not as serious, try getting out of the office to get the staff’s attention.
  • Next, think about whether anyone else needs to be involved. Sometimes, it is a good idea to have a witness, and other times, another person might have some information or feedback that is essential to the conversation. Don’t think that these conversations always need to be alone.
  • Be prepared. Managers should come ready with the key points on what they want to talk about and some real and recent examples of where the performance was not up to standards. Bring the facts rather than a bunch of opinions. The more objective the conversation the better.
  • Make sure to begin any conversation by reinforcing their value and strengths as a person. Remember, the goal of any conversation is to turn performance around rather than to further erode an already shaky relationship. Always treat underperformers well no matter how much they frustrate you. French leader Napoleon Bonaparte famously dealt with poor performers by “an iron hand with a velvet glove.” This advocates firmness made more palatable and effective through courtesy and manners.
  • Agree on a plan for improved performance over the next 30 days with agreed upon results to be achieved or conditions of improvement to be met. Having a plan at the end of the conversation is key. Identify what managers are willing to do to enable team member performance and what is expected of team members in return. The desired outcomes must be clear.
  • And finally, document any conversation and place it in the employees file. Keep a record of conversations so that if the decision to terminate the relationship is finally made, the company has a history and record of trying to improve performance.

As we enable our people, we play the role of a coach. As such, we have to remain focused on what is best for the team and what needs to happen to give the team the best chance to succeed. While it might require a little tough love, being a great coach and enabling the people is the only way they will get to places they could not have reached alone. Famous American football coach Tom Landry suggests, “A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, and has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you can be.” As the leader, focus on helping the team members be what and who they are meant to be, but remember, sometimes they are meant to be customers and not employees. Don’t be afraid to pull out a few weeds for the overall good of the garden.