Mastering Accountability: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Grace and Candor

The mere prospect of having a challenging conversation with an underperforming employee can invoke anxiety, but when we candidly hold team members accountable, these dreaded conversations become valuable opportunities for growth. Follow these three transformative steps to excel in giving growth-oriented feedback that holds team members accountable. 

Step One: Ask Questions
We all know what’s been said about making assumptions, and presuming we know why team members are behaving in a particular way is no exception. That said, whenever we prepare to engage in a potentially difficult conversation with an employee, we start by assuming the best. In a space where conversation will not be overheard, engage the employee with genuine curiosity and empathy, asking open-ended and purposeful questions to understand his/her perspective.

For example, an employee named Jerry showed up late for work this morning. Rather than letting it slide, approach Jerry with a question-based process, saying something like, “Jerry, I noticed this morning that you arrived a bit late. I’m curious what happened. What’s going on?

Step Two: Listen Deeply

The next step is to actively listen, making eye contact and nodding appropriately to communicate listening and understanding. It’s okay to allow pauses in the conversation: While they may feel uncomfortable, pauses can make space for further reflection and conversation.

From Jerry’s response, it may be clear that his tardiness is a temporary struggle, a surmountable challenge, or a sign that Jerry is no longer invested in your organization. Jerry might say something like, “Stuff at home was crazy this morning. I had a hard time getting out of the house,” or he may become defensive and insist his tardiness was no big deal. His response will inform your approach to remediating the issue. 

Step Three: Reflect and Empathize

Craft responses that go beyond mere parroting. Rather, demonstrate sincere understanding by using phrases like, “I’m here to support you. You’re telling me things are kind of crazy on your end and a bit of a challenge. Is that the case?” You may move the conversation toward its conclusion with a question like, “What can we do to resolve this challenge?” It may be that you can aid Jerry by shifting his start time for a season or taking some other supportive action, but if Jerry remains engaged as an employee, his response should convey a willingness to take responsibility and action to improve the situation. By reflecting and empathizing with Jerry’s situation, you turn the conversation into a collaborative journey focused not on shame but solutions.

Incorporating these steps, you’ll master the art of accountability, paving the way for effective communication and fostering mutual growth. These steps are adapted from the 10 Keys of Effective Supervision, Key 8: Sharing Continuously.

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