As team coaches, we face many challenges in our work with teams, often at once.
Low trust, poor communication and lack of alignment are but a few of them.
Where those factors are clear to the team as the discussion begins to take place, others aren’t.
Among the more misunderstood factors is achieving accountability as a team.
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of accountability is as follows:
An obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions. Notice that the focus is on the individual.
This is how most of us think of accountability.
In our Team Effectiveness Model accountability is one of the seven Productivity Team Performance Indicators™.
Being accountable is an essential team competency. Without it, teams tend to be low-performing and unproductive.
Unfortunately for most teams accountability is almost always applied to the individual and not the team.
The Need for Mindset Shift
Shifting that mindset is critical. Particularly as teams evolve from hierarchical, top-down structures, to horizontal and networked.
Today’s organizations operate at an accelerated pace, in a more volatile and rapidly changing landscape.
As a result, today’s teams need to be more nimble and responsive to the demands placed upon them.
They also need to be more aware of the impact that every action makes as it ripples through the interconnected world of work.
In the past, job function generally defined accountability; it was there in the role and job description.
Today, an effective team structure depends on collaboration: work accomplished in relationship.
Within that distinction between the individual and the interconnected team member lies the essential paradigm shift.
That said, our definition of accountability differs in that it’s based on a broader, more networked team context. Here’s our definition:
Team members hold each other accountable. There is clarity around roles and responsibilities with high follow through. This is more than a high level of individual accountability. Team members support one another to meet team goals. They do so by holding each other accountable.
This shift in mindset creates a different environment, with different consequences.
When the focus is on individual accountability, the emphasis is on “my task” or “my performance.” As a result, accountability becomes a proof test and can lead to all manner of negative outcomes.
Judgment of others, excuses, blame, and defensiveness when things go wrong. It isolates individuals and promotes silos.
Individual accountability is still essential, but there’s a strong relationship component that encourages mutual support.
From there we see a shift to “our mission” and “our shared responsibility for results.” That said, individual accountability resides within this larger team context.
Instead of judgment and blame: “Did you or didn’t you do what you were accountable for—team members are accountable—what happened?”
Team accountability creates a different tone and generative outcome. It takes on a more positive tone.
“What support do you need to achieve our common goals?”
Team accountability is about learning from the experience versus being vigilant about performance.
Four Conditions Necessary for Accountability
In order for accountability to be strong on teams, these four conditions need to exist:
Although this may be clear at first glance we often find an underlying confusion around roles.
As roles are defined, responsibilities must be assigned.
The authority to do what’s expected and support by the team to make it happen
This needs to be present at the team level without judgment or blame. Holding one another to account for the sake of the team. Learning from every experience and incorporating that learning into more effective team practices.
The Keys to Success Are Clarity and Transparency
What undermines accountability is confusion and misunderstanding caused by unspoken assumptions and expectations.
How many times have you found yourself shocked by someone’s action or reaction, and blurted, “But I assumed…”?
One way to see how accountability is valued is to compare where it shows up in the ranking of Productivity factors for teams.
For High Productivity/High Positivity teams, accountability ranks third.
That’s third among the seven productivity strengths in the TCI team effectiveness model. This ranking is the result of data culled from our work with thousands of teams.
For all teams, accountability ranks in the middle: fourth out of seven.
And for Low Productivity/Low Positivity teams, accountability ranks fifth out of seven. You can also see the difference when you compare High Productivity/Low Positivity teams with High/High teams.
In both cases, there’s an emphasis on getting the job done.
In the first case, the emphasis is on: How am I doing? On high performing teams, the emphasis is on: How are we doing?
What Gets in the Way for Most Teams
In our experience, the number one reason why teams perform poorly around accountability is that it feels threatening.
All too often we find team members are unwilling to engage and hold one another accountable.
There’s an underlying fear that it will lead to conflict and emotional responses, rather than constructive reflection.
The irony is that increased learning and process improvement are the actual outcomes of felt accountability.
On many teams, there is an unspoken belief and a false dichotomy in place.
If we’re accountable it will lead to upset and we won’t get along well together.
And that becomes a justification for being nice instead of direct and clear.
A secondary reason is that most team members aren’t skilled in this competence so they hold back.
They’re afraid they won’t have the right words, or that they’re interfering—stepping on toes.
Team members hold back and tolerate the intolerable. This bogs the team down and results in stasis.
Over time it festers and grows and becomes the very thing they were trying to avoid: heated conflict.
Some team members want to leave the “hard conversations” up to the team leader.
In many organizations reward is based upon individual performance so there is little incentive to commit to team results.
The list of reasons why team members don’t hold one another accountable is long.
The consequence is that this lack of accountability undermines team performance.
Laying The Groundwork
For most teams, the first step is to clarify the distinction between individual and team accountability.
There needs to be an awareness around the lack of accountability on the team.
A mind shift that replaces the focus on individual performance with collaborative results.
This shift, in fact, is more than a different way of looking at accountability.
It needs to be present in new behaviors that the team can practice together.
Awareness shines a bright light on team accountability but it will only improve with new behavior that becomes second nature.
In the context of team development, this becomes an opportunity for the team to create its own accountability protocol.
Once this is in place the team can then be accountable for practicing it.
The obvious focus here has been accountability as a distinct competence for teams.
Other Team Performance Indicators from the TCI team effectiveness model are also in play.
The level of trust on the team, the ability of team members to engage in constructive interaction.
Alignment on key outcomes proactivity instead of waiting for someone else to take responsibility, and so on.
Each factor is a doorway to an improved team performance that starts with a conversation to raise awareness.
From there the team can explore what’s working and what’s not working so that new behaviors can begin to take place.
Four Ways to Improve Team Accountability
Establish Team Agreements
Most teams have been through the exercise of creating team agreements. And most teams do a poor job of holding one another accountable for those agreements. There’s an opportunity then for the coach to ask: “What will you do, as responsible team members, when you notice the team agreements are not being kept? How will you accept responsibility for this” This becomes a conversation to design a unique team protocol for that situation?
Define The Outcomes
If this team were a top performer in mutual accountability, what would be different? What does this team need to learn or practice to reach that level?
Create Clarity Around Roles & Responsibilities
Look for a team process where there is a lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities, where there may be unspoken assumptions or misalignment on expectations. Take the time for team members to understand one another’s roles and responsibilities and the interconnection. It can start by having team members complete these sentence stems: “I assume…” and “I expect…”
Reflect Upon Past Wins
Have team members share stories about situations where true team accountability was strong. What made it possible? What was the consequence? And then the opposite: team stories where team accountability was absent (but needed) and the impact on team performance.
As these questions are being explored a paradigm shift begins to take place within the team.
The team begins to understand and accept that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
They begin to experience the power of their connectedness. They begin to learn and grow together as a group.
That’s when we start to see the team come into its own. That’s when we witness a team and capable of performing in ways it couldn’t when the focus was on the individual.