Want More Workplace Accountability? Learn to Approach, Not Attack

“What is your problem?!”
“You totally blew the budget!”
“What’s taking you so long?!”

Can you imagine what it feels like to be spoken to that way? Regardless of the intent, this kind of language (especially when accompanied by expressions of disgust, disdain or disrespect), feels like an attack.

I hope you’re not a leader who reprimands your people for poor performance like that. But chances are, you’ve done it at one time or another.

My clients have said to me, “I’m not attacking my team, I’m just confronting them. That’s my responsibility. That’s what I’m paid to do.”

Learning to approach, not attack, is the first step of the A-C-C Model of Accountability.

Because these so-called confrontations often do feel like attacks. Remember, as the CEO, senior executive or managing partner, you’re in a position of power. In a very real sense, you have your people’s futures in your hands.

Your team members are vulnerable to your moods, your decisions, and your whims. Your whispers can sound like shouts to them. So when you “just confront,” they may receive it like a blow to the head or a punch in the stomach.

Why leaders attack

Like everyone else, leaders sometimes feel afraid. They worry, for example, about what will happen if a project isn’t completed on time. Then that fear turns into an attack.

But most of the time, leaders aren’t thinking at all. They’re just reacting. Or they lack the skills to solve the problem. Or they just don’t know a better way. Maybe they grew up in a home where confrontation was the norm. Maybe they learned from a manager who always confronted or attacked them.

Attacking doesn’t work

Attacking tends to shut down creativity. Who can think when they’re being attacked? Who dares submit an idea when it might be mocked or rejected out of hand?

When you attack someone, you deprive them of the opportunity to grow and contribute in ways you might not realize are possible. Not only that, but as a leader you deprive yourself of the opportunity to learn from the people on your team. If you always assume you have the answer, you will fail to benefit from the input others might provide.

Maybe attacking worked as a leadership strategy years ago, when workers had fewer options and felt compelled to stay with one company for their entire career. But nowadays, if people don’t like the way you’re treating them, they’ll leave.

Fortunately, neither attacking nor confronting is necessary for workplace accountability. When you need to communicate with your team about mistakes, shortcomings or other problems, you can approach them instead.

When it’s time to have a conversation with one of your people—even someone who’s not working up to par—think of it as an approach. You’ll be starting off on the right foot, as long as you are:

  • Open
  • Receptive
  • Considerate
  • Seeking information
  • Interested in what the other person has to say.

After all, It’s hard to take responsibility, to admit our mistakes, and to make ourselves vulnerable to other people by telling the simple truth about our human failings.

It’s hard to say, “I blew it today.” Or, “I didn’t include Mr. Miller in the email. I guess I was rushing too much.” Or, “I got distracted by something else and I just didn’t call Melinda like I was supposed to.”

That’s why it’s not fair to expect your people to do it off the bat. It’s up to you—the CEO, senior executive or managing partner—to establish that atmosphere of complete honesty and openness.

But a small change in your behavior can have a huge impact on your team. When you openly share the truth—about yourself, your expectations, and your own faults and failings—it sets the stage for your people to do the same. That’s the crux of the Approach philosophy: you meet respectfully, talk honestly, and work things out.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series, when we look at how leaders can increase workplace accountability even more if they they care, not control.

This article was adapted from my book, The Accountability Factor: The Buck Starts Here. You can get your own copy at: