employee engagement

The ABC Method of Accountability in the Workplace

There is an ongoing conversation among business leaders regarding the need for open and positive workplaces. It’s a cornerstone of the effort to create a productive culture that promotes employee engagement. Yet at the same time, employees need to be held accountable to their work, their team, and to company core values.

How can managers and supervisors maintain performance expectations among team members while avoiding negativity?

The answer is what I call the ABC method, a three-step model for responding to mistakes and other performance shortcomings in a way that empowers people rather than diminishing them.


Start the discussion with some form of appreciation for something the employee does well. For example, “Brandon, I recognize how hard you and your team worked on this project, even staying late and coming in on weekends to meet the deadline. I really appreciate the level of effort you showed here.” That frames the conversation in a positive way. This helps balance the conversation – establish positive intent and recognize what worked.

Be Real

It’s important not to sugarcoat the problem, but also not to point fingers and use accusatory language. This is the part of the process that lets the employee know that a goal or outcome was not reached. For example, “Mary, I’m sure you’re as disappointed as I am that we fell short of the goal.”


This third step is vital to the success of the process. Instead of emphasizing blame or punishment, engage the person further to explore what went wrong and prompt them to seek solutions. “Sean, I’d be interested in your opinion of where we veered off course and how we might do better next time.”

Invite the employee to report back within a short time with his or her ideas. This helps to keep the echoes of the conversation focused on what could’ve been done differently in the past and/or what should be done differently in the future to avoid the shortfall. The overall goal here is to use a failure as a point of reflection and change going forward, rather than just demoralizing them.

This approach is better for the employee in myriad ways, not only because they are more likely to provide constructive proposals and feel as if they are part of the solution rather than the problem, but it also reduces the unnecessary and unhelpful anxiety of perceiving themselves as a failure. Wondering by now if you’re holding your employees accountable in a positive way?

What is the alternative? In the old days of top-down, command-control leadership, the employee would have been blamed directly for his or her failure, and admonished for it, with the threat of firing hanging in the air. It would have been personal, punitive, and psychologically painful. They might have gone home frustrated and defeated, with possible ramifications for those close to them.

The problems with the old model are manifold, not the least of which being that he or she returns to work the next day a compromised employee—less happy, less empowered, less loyal. In today’s workplace, they would be updating their resume and LinkedIn profile, excoriating the business on Glassdoor, and tweeting to their legion of followers about what a jerk the boss is. He or she would not exactly be a recruiting tool for the organization.

Multiply that one employee interaction and its ramifications by an entire workforce and it’s easy to see how the ABC method can smooth a lot of ruffled feathers even as it holds employees more accountable.

There are other empirically validated outcomes when workplace culture pivots toward a more positive leadership model. These benefits include:

  • Increased mental acuity
  • More productive
  • Less illness and a better ability to recover from illness
  • Higher pain tolerance
  • Overall happiness
  • Longer marriage
  • Longer life

Considering the obvious risks of persisting in outdated leadership strategies and the high-performance behaviors encouraged by a positive and supportive approach, waiting any longer to change your management style and shift your culture is far too costly—for you, and for your employees.

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