If you want to build a high performing team you must know how to hold people to account for their performance. In general however, people are more skilled at avoiding accountability than others are at holding them to account. There are three tactics that are most commonly used. For each, there is a specific behaviour that can be used to counter it.

The first tactic that people use to avoid being held to account is simply to talk so much that the main issue is clouded or lost completely. Background and history are given with description of the issues, extraneous details are added and personal opinions are inter-woven with the facts. A listener finds him or herself unable to separate relevant facts from confusing detail and gradually loses track of the key issues.

You can counteract this behaviour with the use of paraphrasing. This means listening carefully to what is being said and then reflecting key points back to the speaker in a paraphrased form. Paraphrasing often starts with a phrase such as ‘Let me check I’ve got this right: you’re saying that…’ Paraphrasing gives you a respectful way of interrupting a speaker to clarify the essence of an issue and keep the discussion on track. It also allows you to regain control of a conversation and change its direction.

A second tactic that allows people to side step accountability is the use of emotional reactions that block discussion of the real issues. In men, this emotional reaction is most likely to be verbal aggressiveness that creates arguments. In similar situations women are more likely to use tears, but the effect is the same: critical feedback is deflected and accountability is avoided.

People quickly learn when and with whom these emotional tactics work. You can  counteract either of them by allowing time for the emotion to subside, (tissues and tea work with tears); indicating clearly that the conversation will return to the critical issue once the emotions are under control; and fixing a follow up time when this will happen.

A third way people sidestep accountability is when they do not suggest any actions or ideas for which they can be held responsible. This leaves others to make suggestions and ask for commitment to them; or to enforce compliance. People are naturally more committed to their own ideas than they are to those of others so even when you have the power and authority to enforce compliance, you are left with the problem of continuous monitoring and motivation of behaviour.

The only counter to this avoidance tactic is to insist that the person whom you wish to hold accountable comes up with some ideas of their own; even if they are imperfect. You can then build these ideas up into better ones, leaving the person still with a sense of ownership and hopefully commitment.

People avoid accountability when they achieve positive consequences for doing so. For example, if a person who takes on a difficult unpleasant task is ‘rewarded’ by being given the next unpleasant task, the person will soon stop volunteering. When people realise that tears and tantrums deflect critical feedback and the possibility that they will be held to account for changing their behaviour, they will continue to use the avoidance tactic.

The best strategy to encourage people to accept accountability is to make sure they receive positive acknowledgement and reward every time they do.

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