Use Tough Love To Hold Others Accountable
The best way to show someone how much you care about their goals is to hold them accountable.
According to Adam Grant, psychologist and professor at the Wharton School, great leaders show tough love by setting high standards and maintaining strong relationships with their teams. Similarly, children have better well-being and academic success when their parents set high standards for their behavior.
If tough love is a key ingredient in supporting others, why is it so rare to come across? Frankly, it’s much easier to be a cheerleader for others, especially for individuals who are highly motivated and crushing their goals.
What’s more difficult, but so much more important, is to be a source of tough love for someone who needs it.
By holding back a critique, you aren’t helping that person. Instead, by making exceptions, you’re preventing that person from reaching their full potential. Of course, the most difficult part of tough love is that it’s uncomfortable to give.
For many of us who identify as supporters, we want to be kind—and with kindness, often comes the desire to be liked. But saying something critical, or calling someone out on their excuses, is in strict conflict with our people-pleasing tendencies. Someone might not like us for speaking the truth. Or worse, there’s the risk that the feedback has the opposite effect and pushes that person further away or causes them to give up.
I believe that despite this risk, it’s still necessary to give tough love. Further, I think that there are ways we can all be better at giving it.
Tough love definition
What does tough love mean, at least in the context of motivation?
Tough love is affection provided in a way that promotes responsible behavior.
It’s the opposite of enabling behavior, which is when someone accepts behavior that’s self-destructive or unacceptable. Often supporters allow an individual to continue bad behavior without consequence, but this can actually hurt the individual. True kindness is allowing them to experience some discomfort without swooping in to save the day every time.
As the saying goes,
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
By challenging others to push past the discomfort, you can help them achieve great things.
Tough love can motivate
I’ve been working on Supporti for a few years now, and I’ve worked with hundreds of people in that time to try out different strategies to motivate them.
Something that I’ve noticed is that positive feedback works great for a short amount of time. Think of a Tony Robbins conference or a spin class instructor. They’re motivating people in that exact moment in an intense way to drive behavior.
When your goal is to inspire someone to take action over a long period of time, however, positive inspiration alone is not enough.
I’m inspired by Gretchen Rubin’s secret of adulthood:
“What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.”
To get actual results, you need to take consistent action. And to motivate someone to put in the work consistently, the best thing you can do is to hold them accountable to their commitments.
In fact, researchers found that one way to make feedback more effective was to preface it with, “I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”
I think back to the teachers who had the biggest impact on my life. Which ones do I remember? It’s not the class that was an easy A, but the ones that challenged me to be better.
I struggled in English class in high school. My teacher was constantly giving pop quizzes to make sure we read the assigned material, asking about minutiae that I never remembered. Then, she’d ask again and again “what’s the significance” of every single metaphor in the boring book, and I struggled to say something insightful. I didn’t do well on the papers I wrote for her class, but she always gave feedback and the opportunity to submit a rewrite, and I submitted a rewrite every time.
On the last day of school, I remember her telling our class, “I don’t want students to say I’m easy. I want them to say ‘she’s hard but good.’” Looking back, I do think she was hard but good. And while I may have improved my writing skills a bit, the real lesson was that I ended up getting a decent grade because I kept rewriting and resubmitting my papers.
I stuck with it. And that skill has served me well.
In college, I had a professor famous for giving extremely hard anatomy exams where the average grade was a C-. His exams would be so challenging, that you had to know all of the material backwards and forwards since you never knew what he was going to ask on the exam. I slowly improved and then one day, I checked my score on a lab test: 100%. I took a photo and still have it to this day.
Take a moment and think about some of your proudest achievements. Are they of things that came easily, or things that took a bit of grit and determination to achieve?
If you agree that tough love has benefited you, then how do you give tough love?
Tough love examples
One of the best examples of giving tough love that I’ve witnessed was when I volunteered with Back on My Feet, a running program that helps people who are at risk for homelessness achieve self-sufficiency.
The way the program works is that the members commit to running three days a week in the early morning (5:30 am), and after maintaining a 90% participate rate after 30 days, they are eligible for education, housing, and employment opportunities.
The leaders of my team did the most incredible job of blending tough accountability with genuine care. How did they do this? Well, the team lead would take attendance at the beginning of each run. If someone was missing, everyone would ask, “Where’s so-and-so?” No one could skip and go unnoticed. We cared that they weren’t there.
When and if that person returned to the next run, the leaders let them know what they needed to do in order to maintain a 90% participation rate or to stay in the program. They cared about the members staying in the program, but they also acknowledged the missed days policy.
There was a long list of people eager to get into Back on My Feet because of the wonderful employment opportunities and the amazing sense of community. For many members, it was the first time another person cared to set high expectations and hold them to them. Because there was so much interest, however, members who couldn’t meet the high bar lost their spot.
It seems tough, especially for a program designed for second chances, right? But that’s the whole point.
Without consequences for one’s actions (or inaction), there’s little reason to show up.
If someone’s really serious about making a change, a bit of tough love and accountability can be the loving nudge they need to stick with it, even when things get difficult.
Tough love for accountability partners
The difference between tough love that is inspiring versus demanding is the element of “caring.” When the recipient knows that they are held to account because the other person cares about them as a person, that makes a huge difference.
In fact, this is exactly in line with Supporti’s research on what makes an incredible accountability partner. It’s so much more important to have a partner that cares about your progress as opposed to someone with whom you share similarities.
However, this raises the question of: what does it mean to care about someone? Supporti matches up strangers for a week at a time. Can you possibly care about a stranger?
We care about strangers all the time: when we hold the door open for someone we don’t know, or allow them to cut ahead in traffic. I don’t have to know someone’s life story to be able to recognize them as a human, believe that they have value, and want the best for them.
Regardless of whether you are motivating your best friend of 15 years or a stranger, the biggest question is: how exactly do I hold someone accountable?
Steps for tough love
How does one give tough love tactfully and effectively? I’ll first summarize my process, and then elaborate about why.
Define the broad goal.
Identify the planned action.
Follow up on whether or not the action was taken.
Guide reflection through curiosity, not judgement.
Step 1. Defining the goal.
As with all undertakings, it’s best to keep in mind your ultimate goal, as this will influence the route you take. If your goal is to motivate someone to change their behavior, you need to think about what is going to produce that outcome.
I start all of my accountability coaching clients with an in-depth consultation where we discuss their long-term goals and what success looks like for them (and how we’ll measure it). You don’t have to know someone deeply in order to give them effective tough love, but it does help if you can get on the same page and clarify what the intended outcome is.
For example, someone’s goal might be to pass the CFA exam so that they can get a promotion at work.
Download the Free Accountability Partner Worksheet to get on the same page with your accountability partner.
Step 2. Identify the action
Now that you know what success means for the person whom you’re holding accountable, the next step is knowing what actions they’re aiming to take.
To hold someone accountable, they must first commit to a defined action. What will you do, by when? The more specific, the better. For example, “I will wake up at 5am on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and study for one hour.”
Step 3. Follow up.
This is the most critical step for accountability, the one that separates reliable accountability partners from pretty much everyone else. Did you do what you said you would do?
To hold someone accountable, you need to follow up. You must check in (ideally at a pre-determined time) with the person that you’re holding accountable and say something like, “Did you wake up at 5am on Monday Tuesday and Thursday to study for the CFA?”
Step 4. Guide reflection through curiosity, not judgement.
Let’s say that person didn’t meet their goal. They slept in two of the three days. Or they woke up and scrolled through social media instead of reading.
This is where the tough love comes in. How do you motivate someone when they haven’t met their goal?
Sadly, a lot of the time people will feel shame if they don’t complete their goal. They’ll avoid the person who is holding them accountable, often leading to ghosting.
For those who do own up to their inaction, you can help them reflect and come up with a new plan of action. Specifically, ask them, “What happened? Where did things go wrong?”
By working as a team to understand what factors contributed to them missing their action, you can help them take steps to set themselves up for success.
Step 5. Repeat Steps 2-4
Any long-term goal worth pursuing requires regular commitment and reflection. By guiding someone to identify and adhere to their next action, you can help them stay committed to the regular work.
For example, continuing with the above example, maybe the person failed because they weren’t getting enough sleep, which made waking up at 5 am challenging. So, you can readjust the goal by having them prepare the night before: winding down at a certain time, putting away devices, etc.
You can also remind the individual of their original goal, going back to the first step: You want to pass the CFA, which will help you grow professionally and increase your income. Help remind them that the temporary discomfort of waking up and studying worth the long term payoff.
At some point, the person you’re trying to hold accountable will either start changing their behavior for the better and start accomplishing their actions, or they’ll continue to find excuses to NOT do it.
Some excuses are totally legitimate: Personal family issues, unexpected health concerns, technological dysfunction, major unexpected life events, or a string of bad luck.
This is not what I mean about excuses.
I’m referring to someone who comes up with a thousand different (preventable) reasons why they couldn’t achieve the thing. “My friend called me late last night so I couldn’t get to bed on time.” “I woke up but then fell back asleep by accident.” “I didn’t hear my alarm.”
In the words of Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, The Power of Passion and Perseverance:
“Do not let temporary setbacks become permanent excuses.”
When you start noticing a pattern of excuses, that’s when it may be time to call someone on their self-destructive mindset. It’s time to speak about it.
For those of us who are not confrontational, verbalizing another person’s disappointing behavior can be very uncomfortable. But remember the first step, setting the goal? Remind yourself of the ultimate goal and that your intent is to help this person achieve that goal.
By accepting their excuses, you aren’t helping them achieve their goal. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The best way to call out someone’s excuses is to simply state the observable facts.
“I’m hearing you say a lot of excuses for why you can’t wake up and study.”
You can leave it there and see what they say. If you’d like, you can give examples of all the excuses they’ve used so far. And if you think it’s appropriate, you may want to follow up with a question like, “Is this goal still important to you?”
You can even say that you want to help them, but that they need to want it badly enough to overcome those challenges. You can't want it for them. Remember, you’re trying to help THEM.
Does the person not get it? You might need to repeat this sentence a few times and then let the void of silence fill until it sinks in.
“Those sound like excuses.” Leave it there. See what they say.
A Word on Word Choice
The reason I like calling out behavior as objectively as possible is because it’s not quite as inflammatory as words that cast judgement on someone. Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean, argues that bosses should criticize their employees when they screw up. While I agree to this to some extent, I think it’s important to choose your words carefully.
Scott gives the example of how her boss said she sounded stupid when she said “um” in meetings. She knew her boss cared deeply about her, so she interpreted this blunt criticism as honest and kind feedback. However, in another scenario, telling someone they sounded stupid could backfire.
Example: I had a manager say to my face that my work on a part of a project was “useless.” Did it motivate me? Nope. In fact, I immediately started looking for another position. Instead, if she had rephrased to be direct but softer like, “I don’t think we need this section because it’s repetitive,” I might have been less insulted, more appreciative of the feedback, and used the information to improve my future contributions.
So take the 20 seconds and choose your wording carefully. Here are some suggestions:
Comment on the behavior instead of the person themselves (“making excuses” instead of “you’re a liar”). This promotes a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset (i.e., "I need to work on this" versus "I’m doomed and this is out of my control").
Consider offering it from your perspective. “To me it sounds like…” “What I’m hearing is…” to soften the impact and approach it as a trusted source.
Reword as a question. “Do you think that these might be excuses?” “What do you think you can do to NOT have an excuse the next time we meet?” as a way of empowering the individual to own their behavior.
In a perfect world, the individual will say, “You know what, you’re absolutely right!” And then you can have a productive conversation about how to work on controlling factors that will set themselves up for success.
Unfortunately, it’s more likely that the excuse-making person will be driven away, especially if you're the first person that's called them out on their excuses. Hopefully this will just be temporary while they internalize what you're saying, and they'll come to appreciate your tough love.
Remember, you can’t change someone who isn’t ready to put in the work.
By giving some tough love, your words may be the one thing that makes them take action. If one person doesn’t respond well to your tough love, you can try it again with someone else, and keep adjusting as you learn what works best for you and the people in your life.