Even in the best-run organizations, things go wrong and employees mishandle their assigned tasks. Sometimes those employee mistakes are significant and costly, infuriating managers who come down hard and with perhaps a bit of righteous fury on the hapless offender. But as most professionals know, such managerial venting just makes matters worse in the long run.
The traditional role of managers is to hold people accountable to timelines, budgets, productivity and other factors, but often that’s done with a fear-based approach where employees perform their duties under threat of some kind of punishment.
Such an approach is counterproductive because humans don’t perform to their optimum level when the brain becomes preoccupied with fear and uncertainty. In fact, many believe it’s the opposite.
People do a better job of carrying out their duties under positive circumstances, and research shows that individual employees, the team and the organization all are more likely to thrive when leaders are positive.
That doesn’t mean managers should ignore problems–things do go wrong and employees need to be held accountable—but it comes down to how a manager handles those situations.
The key is to show managers how to hold people accountable without being negative.
Appreciation with Accountability
First, start with showing appreciation. Begin the conversation with appreciation for something positive about the employee that relates to performance, behavior or attitude. The appreciation step is essential, because otherwise the employee will see the entire process as unfair or unbalanced. You can’t focus strictly on failure. Many employees wonder why their manager only connects with them regarding their mistakes.
The second step is simply being real. Turn the discussion to what isn’t going well in order to hold the employee accountable for their actions. The goal is to let the person know in no uncertain terms that the project was not successful, but to do this without shaming, blaming or demoralizing them. Start this part of the conversation with a statement such as, “We didn’t get where we wanted to with this project.” That acknowledges a shared responsibility, without the punitive sting.
Third, ask thoughtful questions. Inquire about ways their performance could have delivered a better outcome, with questions such as “If we did this project again, what could we do differently to change the outcome?” or “How could I have supported you and your team better?”
Let the employee know you don’t want answers right away. Say that you’ll get with them the following day to hear their thoughts. That can change the trajectory of what the employee will do after the meeting. Instead of going home and updating their resume and complaining to their spouse about the unfair treatment, they are more likely to spend their time focused on what they could have done differently since they have to answer that question the next day.
This process leads to personal and professional growth for the employee. It can turn a point of failure into an opportunity for future success.