Q&A – Should You Hold People Accountable Pubicly?


Dear Emily,

I’m a project manager and often hold meetings with my team to ensure tasks get completed on time and project timelines aren’t in jeopardy. Recently, one team member said he wasn’t going to meet his deadlines. I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t want to call him out in front of everyone during the meeting, but I also didn’t want to let it slide. He has done this before. Any suggestions?

Caught in the Middle

Author: Emily Gregory

Emily Hoffman-Gregory | VitalSmarts

VP Development and Delivery VitalSmarts


Dear Caught in the Middle,

Managers (of people and projects) are often called upon to make tough choices. Should we invest in this technology, or that? Should we hire this person, or that person? Should we focus our efforts on this market, or that one? Because so much of a manager’s work is a zero-sum game, it’s no wonder many develop binary thinking and see many choices as trade-offs.

Your question presents a tough binary choice between two different values: should you be respectful of your team member by not calling him out, or should you be honest about the missed deadlines? Respect, or candor? Which do you choose?

Here’s my advice: don’t choose. Reject the choice as the artificial and false binary that it is. It is possible, in this situation and others, to be both respectful and candid. You can start by believing you can. In fact, consider this: being direct and candid is one of the most authentic ways to be truly respectful of another person.

Here’s how you can start.

Explain how you will handle missed deadlines and why. When starting a project (or starting to work with new team members) jointly acknowledge that deadlines will be missed at some point by someone. No project in the history of projects has ever gone exactly as planned. Once you have set the expectation that occasionally people will miss deadlines, talk about how you will handle this. Start with your good intent and let everyone know exactly how you’ll handle misses and why. It might sound like:

“Because so many other projects depend on this project, we need to talk about misses as a group. When someone misses a deadline, it impacts everyone. So, when that happens, let’s address it as a group, support each other, solve the problem together, and get back on track.”

When needed, remind people of the team norm and shared expectation. When someone misses a deadline, as someone inevitably will, you can create psychological safety within the group by reminding them how you agreed to address misses. With safety established, you can call people in, not call them out. It might sound like this:

“Thanks for letting us know about the slip. As we all decided at the beginning of this project, these moments are good opportunities for us as a team to solve problems and support each other. Can you help us understand what factors are contributing?”

Note the reinforcement here of team accountability: “Can you help us understand” rather than “Can you help me understand?” Because you have set an expectation of accountability, you can now make accountability the province of the team, not just yourself.

At this point, you might be frustrated with my response. So far, I have suggested what you could have done earlier—but the horse is out of the barn! Team norms are great and all, but if you don’t already have them in place, what can you do right now?

If you haven’t set the expectation that accountability will be a team effort, I think your best course of action is to hold the conversation privately, one-on-one. However, make sure you communicate to the rest of the team that these missed deadlines will be addressed, not just glossed over. So, make it public. It might sound like this:

“I’d like to talk about the missed deadlines and their impact. I’ll set up a time for the two of us to talk later, and then we can bring back an update to the team.”
In this way, you preserve safety for the individual by taking the conversation private, but you signal to the team that the conversation will happen. Moreover, you lay the groundwork for future accountability, and perhaps even a new team norm, by committing to report back to the team.

Hope that helps.



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