No more drama: How to get accountability right in the workplace

By 
Jennifer T. Long
Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Accountability is key to any successful business, but some leaders struggle to properly communicate it to employees. One survey found that over one-third of managers were uncomfortable giving direct feedback about job performance, and over two-thirds were uneasy communicating with employees in general.

And given that many people are now working remotely, having tough and honest conversations with underperforming workers won’t get any easier for managers and executives who avoid that fundamental part of their job, says Jennifer T. Long, a Certified Master Coach and ForbesBooks author of Own Up!: How To Hold People Accountable Without All The Drama.

“Getting accountability right in the workplace continues to be a challenge in organizations of all sizes, and conversations about accountability are pivotal conversations that can change everything,” says Long, CEO of Management Possible, a leadership development company. “They can change results, relationships, and culture.

“But many people today are looking for a rehumanized and more human work experience, and people management is replacing talent management. Traditional performance reviews and management processes are getting tossed aside. We say we want to connect better as people, but when the results aren’t there for the business, that ideal of connecting as people goes right out the window. However, there is work leaders can do to address this accountability gap.”

Long spent her previous career as a theater director, and she sees parallels between the drama on stage and in work settings. The lessons of the theater, she says, are the lessons of working with people, which can be applied toward better accountability in the workplace.

“In the theater, you learn a lot about others quickly,” Long says. “You have to tune in to people’s motivations and idiosyncrasies to see how you can leverage their strengths. You want to engage in convincing dialogue and create desired emotional responses and outcomes.

“The longer I’ve worked with corporate managers and leaders, the more acutely aware I’ve become of the ways that some big ideas from theater apply to accountability conversations.”

Long offers these tips to help leaders learn how to have productive accountability discussions:

• Disengage from the drama. Drama can be what happens in response to circumstances around poor performance. “It can involve fingerpointing, the blame game, avoidance, denial and other actions in which people get worked up instead of being calm, focused, and reflective,” Long says. “The key is to recognize the emotional responses for what they are instead of engaging or creating a spectacle. Disengage from the drama so as to be focused and reflective in your communication.”

• Build contextual analysis around expectations. Long says in the theater, actors and directors operate in terms of character and character motivation, which enables them to stand outside a situation and see it through a critical lens. “You get good at taking a situation and evaluating it from multiple perspectives,” she says. “This same capability gives managers the edge they need to remain outside the fray and do better analysis with their people. It also means they’re able to question their own motivations.”

• Role-play. Long says the main idea of theater is to step into another person’s shoes to perform a role and to embody their perspective. In the workplace, she says, leaders who want accountability may find they need to change their approach in order to have an honest, perhaps tough, conversation with an under-performing employee. Role-playing is a way to practice such a discussion. “When we are actively engaged in role-playing, we understand why we get the kind of negative responses we sometimes get from our employees,” Long says. “We realize how we are speaking to them. Role-play is the best practice forum for accountability. It’s a way you work out your approach to performance issues, and further, practicing it allows you to make everyday conversations with your employees easier and more productive.”

“Developing accountability skills within an organization dramatically enhances communication while developing skills in problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration and relationship building,” Long says.

Jennifer T. Long is a Certified Master Coach and the ForbesBooks author of Own Up!: How To Hold People Accountable Without All The Drama. Also a Master Trainer, Long is the CEO of Management Possible, a leadership development company.

Category: