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Home Craft How to Hold a Coworker Accountable When Your Boss Won’t

How to Hold a Coworker Accountable When Your Boss Won’t

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Photo: Stock-Asso (Shutterstock)

When working with teams, I hear a lot of complaints about bosses. One of the most common is about a manager who doesn’t hold people accountable. Someone (or maybe a couple people) on the team consistently perform poorly in their jobs, and the boss doesn’t do anything about it.

At minimum, it’s annoying but when it continues for an extended period, it can be infuriating—and detrimental to the team as a whole. After all, having just one “deadbeat” (who doesn’t pull their weight), “downer” (a chronic pessimist), or “jerk” (disrespectful and rude) can drag down team performance by 30% –40%. 

Yes, typically the onus is on the boss to address the issue these poor performers, but what if they don’t, or won’t? Maybe the manager lacks the leadership ability, or the employee has a highly specialized skill set the boss’s boss has deemed too valuable to let them go (or risk them quitting). There could be any number of factors at play, all of which are outside of your control.

I routinely tell teams this: Everyone is responsible for the success of the team, not just the supervisor. They aren’t the only one who can address deadbeats, downers, and jerks. You can too. Here’s how.

Appreciate others who do contribute

A prominent contributor to building trust on a team is whether its members appreciate each other. This is more than expressing gratitude like, “hey, thanks for submitting the budget on time.” It’s more than recognition too, which is often performance-based and sounds like “you delivered a flawless presentation last week. Great job!”

Appreciation goes deeper. This is about acknowledging the value of someone’s unique contributions to the team. This is about perspective and life experience. It might sound like, “I appreciated the way you disagreed with us today. Your perspective challenges me to see our work differently and we’re better for it.” Seeing the value others put forward is the foundation of respect.

Consider the person you’d like to hold accountable, they’re more likely to listen to you if they know they have your respect.

Be good at your own job

Holding people accountable requires credibility. Take stock of your own performance. Do you meet deadlines, avoid gossip, and consistently do what you say you will do in a high-quality way? If so, you are likely dependable and able to influence. This also means the team is more likely to listen to your ideas and feedback.

Holding others accountable is a challenge if you’re not modeling solid performance yourself.

Discuss you expectations

It’s tough to hold someone to an expectation if they don’t know what that expectation is. Often, accountability issues are really misunderstandings of what is expected.

I used to gripe about a co-worker in another department who rarely replied to emails within 48 hours. More often, it took him three or four days to write-back. After a stressful week, I ran into him in the cafeteria and made a snide comment, “So, are you ever going to reply to your emails?” He was confused and thankfully didn’t blow me off. We chatted and I quickly learned that in his department, a four-day turn-around on email was expected, and three days was good! His boss didn’t want them on email all day and told them to get to it when they could.

I was surprised. All we did in our department was respond to email and fast. After that conversation, we agreed to a two- to three-day turnaround.

If there are accountability issues, there are probably issues of missing expectations. Look for opportunities on your team to discuss what you expect of each other as it relates to working together. Examples include starting and ending meetings on time, deadlines for when work is completed, and even how much sarcasm is acceptable on the team. (I recommend very little, since it can exclude non-native speakers and your neurodivergent peers.)

Keep it simple

Holding people accountable is uncomfortable, even scary for some. If this sounds familiar, maybe you worry you’ll offend the other person or be ignored. Even when the workplace is congenial and respectful, that fear is still in place. This is common but the anticipation is likely the worst part. Keeping it simple helps tap down fear.

Have a neutral and inquisitive tone. Give the person the benefit of the doubt that the problem is an oversight or that they are unaware of the situation. Be brief, start with the expectation and inquire, “We agreed the report would be done by Friday. It’s Tuesday. When will it be ready?”

For many, it’s helpful to plan what to say and practice out loud, instead of in our head. It builds confidence and we’re more likely to say what we intend if we’ve said it before.

Let tt go or escalate the problem

I can hear it already, “But what if after you speak up, they blow you off or scoff at you? Then what?”

If team members appreciate each other, are credible, and discuss expectations, then this kind of disregard is rare. Which speaks to the importance of having those three conditions in place before going down the accountability path.

That said, you have no control over other people’s reactions. Everyone owns their own behavior, so their reaction has everything to do with themselves and not you. You have two choices, let it go or escalate the problem.

Let it go in circumstances when whatever is happening isn’t directly impacting your ability to do great work. Instead, you find it bothersome or annoying. Let that go. In situations where your work product is being affected or safety and well-being are at risk, then escalate the issue to your boss or follow your organization’s reporting policies.

Workplaces function best when everyone takes responsibility for it. Certainly, the managers play a critical role, but each employee does too. It’s not necessary to wait for a boss to hold a deadbeat, a downer, or a jerk accountable. Anyone on the team can by setting a foundation of respect, credibility, and expectations.

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