Pushover No More

It's Never Too Late to Begin Practicing Team Accountability



By Karin Hurt and David Dye

We had just finished giving our “Art of the Tough Conversation” presentation at the PMI® Global Conference in Los Angeles last year when a project manager approached with a question.

“I love these techniques, but I've got a real problem,” he confessed. “I've been working with the same people for seven years. They love working for me. But sometimes I'm just too nice. People miss deliverables, and I'm too patient. I spend way too much time chasing after people to get what I need. I'm afraid to have the tough conversations I need to hold people accountable. I just don't see how I can change now. They've known me for too long.”

He's not alone. Many project managers have allowed their teams to slide—choosing to be liked at the expense of achieving results. In our surveys, over two-thirds of managers prefer getting along to getting results.

Once you've gained a reputation for letting slackers slide, it can be tricky to get back on track. The good news is that if you recognize the need, you can make a fresh start. Here are five steps to transform your leadership and your project team's accountability when you haven't done it before:


Start by taking responsibility. Tell your team: “Frankly, I haven't done the best job when it comes to accountability, but that changes today. I owe it to you, and we owe it to one another, and we owe it to our customers.”


The word “accountability” can be scary to your team, particularly when you haven't talked about it or practiced it in the past. So be specific about your expectations: How strict are task deadlines, and what will the process look like moving forward when one is missed? What are the expectations around response rates to team communication and questions? Will the team be resetting its norms around meeting attendance and preparation? Explain what success looks like going forward and how team members will keep their commitments to one another.


Project managers can't be the only ones putting people on the hook; this is a team sport. Use the INSPIRE method to teach your team to hold more effective accountability conversations:

Initiate. Create space for the conversation by saying something like, “I really care about the success of this project and your success, and I've observed something troublesome recently. Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

Notice. Make an observation of the behavior in question. For instance, say, “I've noticed that your conversations with IT have gotten more contentious.”

Support. Offer specific evidence as needed. For example, “In your last two conversations with IT, you were shouting by the end of the meeting.”

Probe. Ask “What's going on?” or a similar question that brings the other person into the conversation. Ask in a neutral, curious tone to allow him or her to share any relevant information. And after asking, give the other person a chance to talk.

Invite. Ask how he or she could remedy the situation.

Review. Make sure you have understood the person's commitment. Ask him or her to recap the plan.

Enforce. Set a follow-up meeting when you will both check to see if the commitment has been kept. For instance, “I'll check back with you after your next call with IT to see how it went.”


You will get more of what you celebrate and encourage. Be on the lookout for acts of responsibility, especially when a team member holds you accountable. Stop the meeting, congratulate the person for holding you or the team accountable, and encourage him or her to keep doing it. Then return to the meeting.


This is a powerful opportunity to reinforce new behaviors. When the team doesn't practice accountability, call attention to it immediately. You might say, “We'll get back to the project timeline in a minute, but first we need to talk about what happened. I noticed that I didn't bring the data I said I would, and no one said anything. What's going on?” You're using the INSPIRE model to reinforce that they didn't hold you accountable.

It's never too late to begin practicing team accountability. When you take responsibility, reset expectations, equip your team to practice accountability and celebrate as you practice new behaviors together, you create a foundation for amazing results. PM

img img Karin Hurt and David Dye are CEO and president, respectively, of Let's Grow Leaders and authors of Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results—Without Losing Your Soul.



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