PDF Summary:Crucial Accountability, by

Book Summary: Learn the key points in minutes.

Below is a preview of the Shortform book summary of Crucial Accountability by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, et al.. Read the full comprehensive summary at Shortform.

1-Page PDF Summary of Crucial Accountability

When we’re in a relationship with someone who has broken a promise, violated a commitment, behaved badly, or otherwise failed to meet our expectations, we’re forced to decide whether to bring up the issue and risk making our relationship worse or suffer in silence and let the issue continue. Luckily, communication and management experts Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan, and Switzler explain that if we properly prepare for, execute, and follow up on our accountability conversation, we can solve our issues while improving our relationships.

This guide explores the steps necessary to effectively solve accountability issues and provides insights from other fundamental theories of interpersonal communication, management, and psychology. We’ll learn how to discuss the right issue, control our emotions, address sticky topics, and effectively follow up on our chosen solution, ultimately putting an end to accountability issues and steering our relationships in a positive and productive direction.


Executing the Accountability Conversation

The authors then move from preparing for the conversation to having the conversation.

To effectively execute our discussion, we need to bring up the issue in a way that makes the other person feel safe, work with them to identify barriers and solutions, handle any new issues that arise during the conversation, and be aware of behaviors to avoid.

Establishing Mutual Respect and Shared Purpose

The fourth step is addressing the issue in a way that establishes mutual respect and a shared purpose with the other person. In other words, vocalize the issue while letting the other person know through your words, tone, and body language that you respect them and want to improve your relationship—which will benefit both parties.

To do this, explain the issue succinctly: Express your expectations and how the other person failed to meet them. Then, invite them to respond. Throughout the conversation, watch for signs that the other person is feeling unsafe and re-establish safety when necessary (either by clarifying your respect or shared purpose).

(Shortform note: If you fail to establish mutual respect, a shared purpose, or explain the issue succinctly, the other person is likely to feel overwhelmed and stifled. The most common reaction to these negative emotions is to stonewall—to tune the speaker out by ignoring them, acting busy, turning away, or engaging in obsessive behaviors. Stonewalling could permanently damage or end a relationship. You can avoid this consequence by following the authors’ suggestions: Be succinct, be respectful, and establish a mutual purpose.)

Addressing Motivational and Ability-Based Barriers

Once you’ve vocalized the issue, the fifth step is to address any barriers that might be preventing the other person from completing their task. The authors point to two kinds of barriers you need to consider: motivational barriers and ability-based barriers.

If you think the barrier is motivational, explain the negative consequences of the accountability issue to the other person. If they see why meeting your expectation is important, and what bad things might happen if they don't, they’re more likely to become intrinsically motivated to meet expectations long-term.

(Shortform note: In Drive, Daniel Pink seconds the authors’ argument, explaining that relaying negative consequences to the other person is the most effective strategy because it increases motivation. On the other hand, positive consequences, like rewards, decrease intrinsic motivation, quality of work, and creativity. So to most effectively motivate the other person to want to complete a task, explain to them the negative consequences that will happen if they fail to do so.)

If you think the barrier is ability-based, do your best to make the task possible and easy for the other person. Work with them to identify whether the root cause of the ability barrier is personal, social, or structural. Once we have this information, we can determine the best strategy to remove the barrier.

If the ability barrier is personal, the other person lacks the internal resources to complete the task, such as knowledge, skill, or experience. If the ability barrier is social, the other person is unable to complete the task because of another person—they may be waiting for someone to pass on resources necessary to complete the job. If the ability barrier is structural, the other person is unable to complete the task due to an environmental factor, such as a distracting or uncomfortable work environment.

(Shortform note: You may have difficulty identifying an ability barrier if the other person is resistant to exposing their or others’ shortcomings or simply doesn't know what the barrier is. Luckily, even if the other person refuses to or can’t explicitly state what the barrier is, psychologists explain that we can identify the root cause by focusing on the phrases they use to describe the issue. Phrases such as “I’m trying,” “I don’t understand,” and “I thought” indicate that the root barrier is internal or personal. Phrases like “I’m waiting for,” “I’m stuck at this step,” “I need,” or “I don’t have enough time” can indicate that the root barrier is external—either social or structural.)

The authors encourage you to involve the other person in this process because the other person is closest to the issue and will be best able to identify the barriers and figure out how to solve them. Furthermore, when you actively involve the other person in the process, they’ll be more motivated to follow through.

(Shortform note: Experts agree that the best way to solve conflict is by collaborating with the other person to identify solutions. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model Instrument explains that a collaborator is someone who approaches conflict by being both assertive and cooperative, and by working with others to identify problems and solutions. Many psychologists agree that this is the ideal strategy because it indicates that the initiator has a high concern for both self and others, allowing all parties to get what they want while minimizing negative feelings.)

Handling New Issues That Arise

The sixth step, the authors explain, is to deal with new, urgent issues that may arise during our conversation. When new, urgent issues arise, such as the other person lying or expressing a different problem, they need to be dealt with immediately.

To deal with emerging issues:

  1. Bookmark the conversation by acknowledging the new issue.
  2. Identify the problem. In doing so, refrain from making assumptions and try to see the other person’s perspective.
  3. Describe the gap between your expectations and the reality of the situation. (If the other person brought up a new issue, explain what you understand about their expectations and what you did to break them.)
  4. Seek a commitment that the issue won’t happen again.

Once you've gone through these steps, you can return to the original discussion.

In Thanks for the Feedback, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen explain that sometimes when an urgent issue arises, you should finish the original discussion and schedule a later time to discuss the new issue rather than addressing it immediately. This is because sometimes, the other person might bring up a new issue as a distraction tactic to avoid accountability. Stone and Heen call this practice switchtracking. They warn that if you pivot the conversation to this new issue, you may end up derailing the conversation and falling into the other person’s trap—to prevent you from holding them accountable. When this happens, Stone and Heen recommend that you:

  • Verbally acknowledge that there are two separate issues at hand.

  • Acknowledge that both issues need to be addressed.

  • Set aside a separate time to talk about the new issue after you’ve finished the original discussion.

What NOT to Do While Discussing Accountability

Now that we know how to effectively have an accountability conversation and handle emerging issues, the seventh step is to look at some behaviors we should avoid. The authors explain that the following list of behaviors should be avoided at all costs r to maintain a safe environment, preserve our relationship with the other person, and effectively solve the problem:

1. Don’t propose solutions until you’ve listened to what the other person has to say—they’re closer to the issue than you and probably have insights that you don't.

(Shortform note: Experts explain that when we enter a conversation with the belief that we fully understand the problem and how to solve it, it becomes difficult to truly listen to the other person and sends the message that we don’t think they’re capable of solving the issue.)

2. Don’t propose solutions and then ask their opinions—this can bias their response and stifle their good ideas and genuine input.

(Shortform note: This practice is called asking with leading questions: questions that lead or persuade the other person to give a certain response. When you ask a leading question, it's unlikely that you’ll receive the other person’s genuine, unbiased response. Avoid this if you truly want to hear the other person’s opinions and the best possible solutions.)

3. Don’t enter the conversation with a solution in mind and then try and get the other person to guess what you’re thinking—if you ask the other person for their ideas disingenuously when you already have a solution in mind, you come off as disrespectful and manipulative.

(Shortform note: Some experts describe this type of questioning as “GWOMMing,” or making others “Guess What's On My Mind.” This can cause the other person to perceive you as disingenuous or dishonest, and they might hold back their feedback or become resentful.)

4. Don’t cut things short—the more dialogue there is between you and the other person, the more likely you are to understand the issue and develop an effective solution.

(Shortform note: Experts suggest that we can have a successful and rewarding conversation by making sure the conversation is 50/50, using effective and active listening skills, engaging in reciprocal disclosure (when they relate a personal fact, relate one back to them), remaining positive, waiting for the other person to pause before responding, and inviting them to respond when you’re done.)

5. Don’t turn consequences into threats—there’s a big difference between explaining the natural consequences of someone’s behavior and threatening them with the consequences. Remember that your goal is to inform them of things they might not have known, not to scare them into submission.

(Shortform note: Experts explain that threatening the other person is ultimately a play for power that occurs when we fear our requests won’t be met. These threats can cause hurt and resentment within the relationship that can take weeks or months to heal. Psychologists recommend that when we feel tempted to make threats, this is an indication that we need to take a time-out from the conversation to cool down and finish the discussion at a later time.)

6. Don’t make the conversation unnecessarily long—once the other person has complied, there’s no need to continue explaining consequences and dragging out the issue.

(Shortform note: Experts explain that one of the reasons we keep talking when the conversation should end is because we’re hearing rather than listening. When we’re hearing the other person, we’re not fully absorbing what they’re saying because we’re so caught up in our own thoughts that we don’t realize when the other person has understood our point and complied. To stop talking once the other person has complied, turn up your active listening skills.)

Following Up

With the details of how to initiate and execute the conversation down, the last step is to effectively follow up on our chosen solution.

First, we need to explain to the other person what needs to get done by identifying specifically who does what by when. Don’t leave any of these tactics up for interpretation or you may be disappointed with the results.

(Shortform note: Experts second the authors’ argument here, explaining that the three things necessary for an employee to effectively complete a task are clear goals, detailed parameters, and accurate deadlines. No matter how self-sufficient, responsible, or hard-working someone is, they can’t effectively meet expectations without certain structures and boundaries.)

Next, we need to determine the intensity, frequency, and type of follow-up. How soon and often will you check on results? Who will initiate the check-in? Does it need to be during a private meeting or a routine interaction? The authors explain that there are a few factors to consider when making these decisions: how reliable the person is, how experienced they are in the area, how difficult the task is, and how crucial the task is.

(Shortform note: The authors explain that our follow-up will depend on the person and the circumstances—we want to give them as much responsibility as they can handle so we don’t become micromanagers. However, micromanagers usually don’t realize that they’re micromanaging because of their subconscious lack of trust in other people’s abilities. Experts explain that you might be a micromanager if you do the following: You don’t like delegating difficult tasks because you’ll do it best, you require employees to check in before making decisions, you’re rarely satisfied with deliverables, you find yourself constantly making changes to others’ work, and you’re obsessed with efficiency and knowing who’s working and when.)

Want to learn the rest of Crucial Accountability in 21 minutes?

Unlock the full book summary of Crucial Accountability by signing up for Shortform.

Shortform summaries help you learn 10x faster by:

  • Being 100% comprehensive: you learn the most important points in the book
  • Cutting out the fluff: you don't spend your time wondering what the author's point is.
  • Interactive exercises: apply the book's ideas to your own life with our educators' guidance.

Here's a preview of the rest of Shortform's Crucial Accountability PDF summary:

PDF Summary Shortform Introduction


The Book’s Publication

Crucial Accountability was published in 2013 by McGraw Hill Education and is the second edition of the original title Crucial Confrontations, first published in 2004. The book is part of Crucial Learning’s two-book series and follows Crucial Conversations, published in 2002. Crucial Conversations, the first book in the series, provides readers with tools and techniques to handle stressful conversations (referred to by the authors as “crucial conversations”). One of the types of crucial conversations addressed in the book is the accountability conversation. Because accountability is so crucial for healthy relationships and effective organizations, the authors chose to go in-depth on this topic in the second book of the series, Crucial Accountability.

The Book’s Context


PDF Summary Preface: What’s an Accountability Conversation?


  • Address the wrong issue.
  • Bring up issues that are no longer relevant, or not important enough to discuss.
  • Unfairly accuse someone of ill-intent.
  • Enter the conversation hot-headed and end up in an explosive argument.

If we follow any of these paths, we’re unlikely to effectively resolve the problem and might create additional problems, such as harming our reputation or damaging our relationship with the other person.

In addition, the authors caution that if we try to avoid these potential consequences by simply ignoring the issue and not confronting the other person, we might end up acting out our feelings unknowingly and creating more problems than we started with.

To prevent these adverse effects, the authors outline the steps required to have an effective accountability conversation. First, they discuss how to identify the key issue to address and how to see the issue from the other person’s perspective. Next, they walk us through how to maintain a safe environment while initiating the discussion, and how to involve the other person in identifying solutions. Finally, they explain how to close the conversation and follow up on the chosen solution. The...

PDF Summary Part 1: Identifying the Issue and Whether to Discuss It


Harboring small resentments over time and neglecting to address them is called gunnysacking. Gunnysacking is considered by psychologists and communication specialists to be one of the main relationship killers. If we fail to address the issues within our gunny sack, we will eventually experience a “last-straw” situation which will result in an emotional explosion where all the issues will spill out at once. This can greatly damage the relationship.

So, if addressing the key issue doesn’t resolve the bundle, consider that you might be gunnysacking and may need to hold multiple accountability conversations to completely resolve your bundle.

To effectively examine the problem so that you can boil it down to a concisely stated key issue, the authors recommend asking yourself the following questions:

How Many Times Has the Issue Occurred?

When determining the key issue to center your discussion around, the frequency of the behavior in question can indicate what you should focus on.

  • If the issue has only occurred once, the key...

What Our Readers Say

This is the best summary of Crucial Accountability I've ever read. I learned all the main points in just 20 minutes.

Learn more about our summaries →

PDF Summary Part 2: See the Whole Story


It’s important to note, however, that these rights and wrongs are subjective. The other person has different past experiences than us, therefore their rights and wrongs are probably a little different than ours. Consequently, they make the same assertion as the authors of Crucial Accountability: we can’t make an accurate judgment of someone’s ethics or character by simply observing their behavior.

Why Do We Make Negative Assumptions?

The authors explain that the reason why we automatically assume the worst about another person's actions is because of the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error states that when other people make mistakes or act out, we assume that they do so because of their character. Contrastingly, when we make a mistake or act out, we attribute our actions to outside factors.

In other words, when we make a mistake, we are quick to consider all the factors that led us to that decision; however, when others fail to meet our expectations, we immediately assume the worst of them personally.

  • Let’s go back to the above example with the “lazy” roommate. We assumed that not washing dishes was a manifestation...

PDF Summary Part 3: Initiating the Conversation


When you approach the conversation by laying out the facts, expressing your feelings, and asking for their perspective, you lay out the issue succinctly while letting the other person know that you’re not accusing them, rather informing them of the problem you’re facing and asking to work together to solve it, benefiting both of you in the long run.

(Shortform note: In Difficult Conversations, Stone, Patton, and Heen recommend a similar approach to bring up the issue while maintaining a safe environment. While they essentially recommend taking the same steps, they combine the first two steps from Crucial Accountability into one, recommending that you lay out the facts and explain how the situation impacted you in the same statement. They add that you can most effectively do this by taking a third-party stance—in other words, focus on the facts and consequences and avoid emotional explanations. Their next step lines up with the third step presented by the authors: Invite the other...

PDF Summary Part 4: How to Discuss Motivational Barriers


If you think using rewards would be helpful in your situation, Pink advises you only use extrinsic rewards for routine tasks. When we use rewards for routine tasks, it can motivate people without the negative consequences discussed above because routine tasks don’t usually require creativity or high-quality performance.

Additionally, if you offer a reward, you might actually provide intrinsic motivation to complete routine tasks because it will give the other person something to look forward to, or in other words, another reason to complete the task aside from it being mandatory.

Techniques to Explain the Consequences

The authors lay out the most motivating ways to discuss consequences below:

Connect the consequences to the other person’s values. To motivate the other person to want to do what you're proposing, help them see how their own values will be supported in the process.

Connect the short-term reward to the long-term costs. Show the other person how the immediate enjoyment they are experiencing will inevitably lead to problems in the long term.

**Focus on the long-term benefits....

PDF Summary Part 5: How to Discuss Ability Barriers


A collaborator approaches conflict by being both assertive and cooperative, and by working with others to identify problems and solutions. Many psychologists agree that this is the ideal strategy because it indicates that the initiator has a high concern for both self and others, allowing all parties to get what they want while minimizing negative feelings.

The remaining conflict styles, in order from most to least effective according to the TKI are: compromising (indicating a medium concern for both self and others), accommodating (indicating a low concern for self and high concern for others), competing (indicating a high concern for self and low concern for others), and avoiding (indicating a low concern for self and low concern for other). When we choose silence over voicing our concerns, as the authors note often happens, we’re enacting the worst approach to conflict—avoiding.

However, inviting the other person to participate can be tricky when you either don’t have the...

PDF Summary Part 6: How to Handle Emergent Issues Mid-Conversation


2) Follow the techniques talked about in chapter two to prepare for the discussion: Identify the problem you want to discuss, refrain from making assumptions about the other person’s intentions, and control your emotions by telling a more accurate story.

3) Describe the gap between your expectations and what happened, then ask why: “When I asked you why you skipped practice, you lied and told me you were there. Lying is both a violation of my trust and an infraction of family rules. Why would you lie rather than tell me the truth?”

4) Last, close the conversation by seeking a clear commitment from the other person: “So next time we have a situation that you’d rather not discuss with me, will you promise to be truthful so we can maintain trust in our relationship and solve the original problem in a healthy way?”

5) Assess safety and return to the original discussion if possible: If there is enough safety to continue the original discussion, then do so. If you sense that the other person is feeling unsafe and overwhelmed, refrain from piling on more problems and set a later time to finish the original discussion.

**When to Pivot the Conversation and When to...

Why are Shortform Summaries the Best?

We're the most efficient way to learn the most useful ideas from a book.

Cuts Out the Fluff

Ever feel a book rambles on, giving anecdotes that aren't useful? Often get frustrated by an author who doesn't get to the point?

We cut out the fluff, keeping only the most useful examples and ideas. We also re-organize books for clarity, putting the most important principles first, so you can learn faster.

Always Comprehensive

Other summaries give you just a highlight of some of the ideas in a book. We find these too vague to be satisfying.

At Shortform, we want to cover every point worth knowing in the book. Learn nuances, key examples, and critical details on how to apply the ideas.

3 Different Levels of Detail

You want different levels of detail at different times. That's why every book is summarized in three lengths:

1) Paragraph to get the gist

PDF Summary Part 7: What NOT to Do While Discussing Accountability


Don’t Bias Their Response

The authors warn that when you’re brainstorming solutions, don’t bias the other person’s response by first proposing a solution and then asking what they think. When you start off the discussion with something like “to solve this problem I think that it’s best to do X. What do you think?” you’re preventing new, and possibly better, solutions to enter the conversation.

The authors explain that this strategy stifles the production of new and better ideas in two ways:

  1. You’re putting ideas in the other person’s head which can stifle any new solutions they might have come up with.
  2. They might be hesitant to disagree with you.

Instead, the authors advise that you ask open-ended questions that don’t assume the solution.

Don’t Use Leading Questions

This practice is called asking with leading questions: Leading questions are defined as questions that lead or persuade the other person to give a certain response.

These types of...

PDF Summary Part 8: Making a Plan and Following Up


Following Up

After determining the plan of action, the authors assert that you must determine when and how to follow up on the results. While you don't want to make the other person feel micromanaged, you also don’t want to take an entirely hands-off approach. To determine how soon after the conversation you need to follow up and the appropriate frequency and method, consider the following questions:

1) How important or risky is the task: If the task is very important or complicated, you should closely monitor the situation by following up soon after the discussion.

2) Can you trust that they will perform the task well? If the other person has not proved reliable or has little experience, you may need multiple follow-ups throughout the process to check on their progress.

However, if the other person has a fairly good track record or they’re experienced in the area, your follow-up approach can be less aggressive. Rather than planning an exclusive meeting, you can follow up during a routine interaction, for example. Furthermore, if the task is routine and the person is reliable, you can have them initiate the follow-up. For example: “when you’ve...

PDF Summary Part 9: The Truly Tough Situations and How to Handle Them


  • Their view of reality seems much different from yours and others.

Enduring a relationship: When the issue isn’t big enough to end the relationship, we can learn to endure the issue by trying to see the other person’s story. This entails empathizing with the other person and coming to reasonable conclusions about their behavior.

(Shortform note: Experts note that in addition to the authors’ recommendations on how to cope, you should also know your triggers and avoid them when possible. If you do become triggered, take deep breaths and try to ground yourself in the present moment rather than your thoughts and emotions.)

Ending a Relationship: If you find that you cannot empathize with the other person and you remain upset over the issue, you’re not enduring but wallowing. Wallowing is when we remain in a situation but constantly complain, either internally or externally. In these situations, the authors say that you must end the relationship.

(Shortform note: [Experts second the authors’...