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ATD Blog

Should You Hold People Publicly Accountable?

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Managers—of both people and projects—are often called upon to make tough choices. Should we invest in this technology or another? Should we hire this person or a different candidate? Should we focus our efforts on this market or an emerging one? Because so much of a manager’s work is a zero-sum game, it’s no wonder many develop binary thinking and see many choices as trade-offs.

Another common polarized choice is respect or candor when dealing with team members. For instance, should you respect a team member’s ego by not calling him out when they continually fail to meet deadlines, or should you be honest and confront the issue? Which do you choose?

Here’s my advice: don’t choose. Reject the choice as the artificial and false binary that it is. In this situation and others, it is possible to be both respectful and candid. Start by believing you can. Consider this: being direct and candid is one of the most authentic ways to be truly respectful of another person.

Use these tips from Crucial Learning’s Crucial Conversations for Accountability course to start holding people accountable.

Create a Team Norm

Explain how you will handle missed deadlines and why up front. When starting a project or working with new team members, jointly acknowledge that deadlines will be missed at some point by someone. Every project in history has gone differently than planned. Once you’ve set the expectation that people will occasionally miss deadlines, discuss how you will handle these situations when they happen. It might go something like:

“Because so many other projects depend on this project, we must talk about deadlines as a group. When someone misses a deadline, it impacts everyone. So when that happens, let’s address it as a group, support each other, solve the problem together, and get back on track.”


Make It Safe

When needed, remind people of the team norm and shared expectation. For example, when someone misses a deadline, as someone inevitably will, you can create psychological safety within the group by reminding them how you agreed to address the issue. With such safety established, you can call people in, not out. That might go something like:

“Thanks for letting us know about the slip. As we all decided at the beginning of this project, these moments are good opportunities for the team to solve problems and support each other. Can you help us understand the contributing factors?”

Note the reinforcement of team accountability: “Can you help us understand” rather than “Can you help me understand?” Because you’ve set an expectation of accountability, you can now make accountability the province of the team, not just yourself.


At this point, you might be frustrated with my response. So far, I’ve suggested what you could have done earlier—but the horse is out of the barn! Team norms are great, but what can you do right now if you don’t already have them in place?

Take It Private, Publicly

If you haven’t set the expectation that accountability is a team effort, your best course of action is to hold the conversation one-on-one. However, communicate that these missed deadlines will be addressed to the rest of the team, not just glossed over. That might go something like:

“I’d like to talk about the missed deadlines and their impact. I’ll set up a time for the two of us to talk later, and then we can bring an update to the team.”

In this way, you preserve safety for the individual by taking the conversation private, but you signal to the team that the conversation will happen. Moreover, you lay the groundwork for future accountability, and perhaps even a new team norm, by committing to reporting back to the entire team.

About the Author

Emily Gregory is coauthor of Crucial Conversations and a Crucial Learning master trainer who has helped thousands of organizations such as Intel, Yahoo, and the Mayo Clinic achieve new levels of success. Emily holds a Medical Doctorate degree from the University of Utah and a Master of Business Administration from the Marriott School of Business at Brigham Young University.

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