2016-02-26

How can you hold employees accountable without rewards and consequences?

Bruce Tulgan

It’s a whole lot easier to manage performance if you have the resources and discretion (and the guts) to tie specific rewards and punishments directly to concrete actions within the control of the individuals you are managing. Most managers have more discretion and resources than they use, but some managers have very little.


Sometimes all you have is the ability to ask employees on a regular basis to look you in the eye and give an account of their actions. Even without rewards and consequences, our research shows that you can have a powerful impact on most employees simply by getting them in the habit of giving a regular account of how their performance lines up with expectations and requirements spelled out in advance. You want them to care about what you think of them. You want them to have a hard time looking you in the eye and saying, after you’ve spelled out clearly what is expected of them, “No. I didn’t do it.”


That’s accountability: Simply getting people to behave as if they know in advance that they will have to explain themselves. Nearly everybody performs at a higher level with regular scrutiny and coaching. The impact is much greater of course when the coach brings to the table a high degree of credibility; skill, knowledge and experience; and a relationship of genuine trust and confidence built over time through regular one-on-one dialogue.


When it comes to your employees, you are the performance coach. That doesn’t mean you have to speak with any special dose of charisma or passion, or that you have to suddenly become the “natural leader” who can inspire and motivate through your infectious enthusiasm. Being the performance coach does mean that you are the one who is talking on a regular basis one-on-one with each individual about steadily improving his performance.


Your job is to use that bright light of scrutiny to help employees see their targets at work more clearly and aim better at hitting those targets. By shining a bright light on their work, you tell them they are important and their work is important. Best of all, you will help them work a little faster and a little better every step of the way.


The most important aspect of performance coaching is being steady and regular—reliably persistent. Of course, some people have more natural talent than others when it comes to coaching. You will get lots of practice if you are diligent about maintaining your regular ongoing one-on-ones. For starters, just keep talking about the work:

  • Focus on specific instances of individual performance
  • Describe the employee’s performance honestly and vividly
  • Offer course-correcting feedback
  • Always describe “next steps” in terms of clear expectations: concrete actions the individual can control with specific guidelines and clear timetables
  • In the next conversation talk about how the actual performance lined up with the expectations set

ABOUT THE AUTHORBruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), , and It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website www.rainmakerthinking.com.

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