Embracing Accountability

In a previous article on fostering trust and managing conflict, we referenced the popular business fable, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, which describes five common obstacles (dysfunctions) that prevent teams from executing at their best. Let’s explore dysfunction #4 and the most dangerous of the five: avoidance of accountability.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the word “accountability”? For many of us it evokes a negative, distasteful response because the word can be associated with making a mistake, being caught in and then punished for that error. 
We may liken accountability to being scolded like a child that has misbehaved. When viewed like this, it’s no wonder that we prefer not to hold, or be held, accountable. Reasons we might avoid accountability include:

  • Discomfort with conflict
  • Need to be liked
  • Fear of harming a friendship
  • Lack of confidence that the accountability would change results
  • Preference to just fix the problem/do the work ourselves
  • Uncertainty on how to hold others accountable in areas where we struggle

Perhaps it’s time to reframe and clearly define what is meant by accountability. Ironically, the more willing a leader is to model accountability, the less he will actually need to provide it directly because in the highest performing teams it shows up as a peer-to-peer norm. In the model above, Lencioni describes accountability as:
    The willingness of team members to call their peers on performance or behaviors that might hurt the team.
It is really about committing to a standard as a team and placing the team’s performance ahead of the unwillingness to have a potentially difficult conversation. The key is identifying where that commitment to a common standard has broken down.  Here are a few simple questions to consider about your team in this area, or to have them actually answer (anonymously) for more concrete insights. Score each of the following statements below on this 1-5 scale (1= Almost Never, 2=Rarely, 3=Sometimes, 4=Usually, 5=Almost Always):

  1. Team members offer unprovoked, constructive feedback to one another.
  2. The team ensures that members feel pressure from their peers and the expectation to perform.
  3. Team members confront peers about problems in their respective areas of responsibility. 
  4. Team members question one another about their current approach and methods.

In order for the team to make this leap, the leader must model the desired behavior. Go first. To get started, consider using the questions above to diagnose the biggest issue. Then, use the following list of practices as conversation starters in an open, frank conversation with the team about what could be done as a unit to improve in this area.
Our ability to hold one another accountable could improve if we challenged one another to:
  • Call one another on unproductive behavior
  • Review progress against goals during team meetings
  • Give one another feedback
  • Be more direct
  • Publicly share goals
  • Address missed deadlines immediately 
  • Have clearer priorities and goals
  • Follow through on personal commitments
  • Have more efficient and productive meetings
  • Spend more time together