Be honest…what’s your initial reaction when a team member slips up on a critical commitment or misses a deadline?

Perhaps after muttering a few choice phrases, you take a deep breath, and issue a stern reminder. Or maybe your style tends more toward sending an explanatory email, having a mini pep talk, or writing a Post-it Note reminder to deal with it later. Yet, there’s a more thoughtful, proactive, empowering, and collaborative way to handle things.

The catch is, you can’t wait until someone messes up, blows a deadline or shows a lack of accountability. Instead, ask questions ahead of time to set goals, manage expectations, and implement accountability measures.

Micromanagers Tell. Leaders Ask.

By asking better questions, earlier, you can really accomplish a lot. For example, it’s possible to rally everyone around a common goal, have them create a plan, take ownership, and even envision the appropriate actions to take should things go south.

As a mentor once pointed out, if you involve people in the goal-setting and planning processes, you don’t need to persuade them of the benefits or “sell” them to gain their buy-in. When faced with an employee who falls short of the goal line, it’s easy to resort to friendly reminders. But statements—even positive ones—have a way of diminishing a team’s creativity and self-reliance, whereas asking a thoughtfully chosen question can ignite a conversation and encourage people to think, learn, problem-solve, act, or create.

As leadership coach and author Margaret Wheatley notes, “Good questions energize people.”

In my workshop, “Taking the Lead,” I ask participants to brainstorm questions they could ask a team to help them collaboratively set goals, and expectations, and to inspire action. Here are nine of my favorite accountability questions.

1. What is our shared goal?
2. What’s our ultimate purpose behind this goal?
3. What does success look like?
4. How will we measure success?
5. What steps must we take to get there?
6. What are the deliverables?
7. What piece of this will you own?
8. How will we hold ourselves accountable?
9. How will we respond if things go off-course?


Questions aren’t just for leaders.

If you’re in a meeting and you can’t think of something smart to say, dive deeper into important issues by asking a question. If you’re working in a group that could use a gentle nudge toward accountability, query them about a critical next step. Smart questions show your level of commitment to the work at hand, while pushing the team toward peak performance.

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