Every leader I’ve ever met sees accountability as foundational to a healthy, sustainable culture. The problem is, we use the word without really understanding what it means.

Usually, we are holding on to one or both of these hidden beliefs. We have a deeply held association between accountability and punishment — instead of considering it a tool to help people grow.

Or we have a deeply held assumption that accountability is a one-off event — rather than a long-term conversation between manager and employee.

Yet, most of us have had an experience that runs counter to that —when someone in an authority position in our life— a boss, a parent, a teacher—saw it as their job to have that conversation with us:

“This is where you are right now. This is where you say you want to be. Based on what I know, this is what it’s going to take to get there. Because I care about you, I’m going to let you know when you’re off track.”

Why are we depriving our employees of that kind of experience?
To get there, think of accountability as a dial with five steps. Start at the low end, then turn up the dial if necessary.

It’s the first three steps —what we call  the mention, the invitation, the conversation  —  that most managers skip, leading to employee disengagement. The last two steps the boundary and the limit — cover probation and termination, albeit in a far more humanistic and supportive frame.

Fortunately, most managers rarely have to use these more extreme steps; unfortunately, too many managers jump right to them, bypassing the first three and blindsiding employees with too-tough feedback.

The first three steps name, frame, and unpack performance issues in a way that moves from surface-level events to meaningful and actionable personal growth themes:

The Mention.

The first step is naming small but problematic behaviors in an informal way in real time. By putting words to what you are noticing, instead of waiting for a crisis, you build a relationship of mutual respect. You show that you genuinely care about their growth by acknowledging that they’re overwhelmed instead of pretending you don’t see and by helping them find their contribution to a conflict instead of letting it fester.

The Invitation.

We’re great at seeing patterns in other people’s behavior; it’s harder to see those patterns in ourselves. The invitation is helping your employee connect the dots. Let’s say you saw typos in an employee’s client email on Monday, they seemed disengaged in a meeting on Wednesday, and there was a miscommunication with a teammate on Thursday. Ask them what those events might have in common.

The Conversation.

This is the place to go deeper by asking questions that guide people to discover for themselves how changing this pattern at work would have positive impacts at home. It might sound like this: “We’ve been talking about you overextending yourself and the impact that’s having on the quality of your work. I’m not asking for you to share the answer, but one question that helps me is, ‘Where does this pattern show up in my personal life, and what would be the benefit if I stopped it?’”

The key to building the bridge between work performance and personal growth is to focus on impacts. How are people showing up in a way that makes life harder or more frustrating for the people around them? It’s your job to guide them to make those connections.

It’s their job to do the work from there.

In short, be observant and address problems you see. Follow up to let them know it’s important. Then walk it down with them — to the place where the line between personal and professional growth disappears. Not because you’ve gone over that line, but because you’re treating them as a whole person.

At work, as in life, we all need the people who care enough to reflect us back to ourselves, to be centered enough in themselves to let us work through our initial defensiveness so that we put down our guard and get back to the work of becoming a better version of ourselves.

That’s what Accountability is for.