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Peer-to-Peer Accountability: The Game Changer

By Shelly Setzer

Recently, while I was working with a long-time client, I was struck by the candor and intensity with which two of the teammates were interacting. Over a year ago, when our work together was still in its infancy, things were radically different (tense and strained are a couple of descriptors that come to mind). In fact, Bill, the head of a major division of this organization, and one of his peers, Samantha, were close to a breaking point. Their different communication and decision-making styles had caused such friction and tension that they had lost respect and trust for one another. Bill needs details, process, and time to reflect and communicate. Samantha, on the other hand, processes verbally and prefers to leave the details to others. Bill and Samantha were essentially having daily stand-offs – I wouldn’t have been surprised if one of them had left the organization. And the effect on the rest of the leadership team was clear – everyone noticed the destructive way these two interacted, there was no hiding their contempt for one another, and thus the productivity of the entire team was dragged down by these unaddressed challenges.

A year and a half later, it was a completely different story.

So what changed?
Bill and Samantha learned how to embrace and practice one of the most essential (but difficult) components of team cohesiveness: peer-to-peer accountability.

The relationship improved when they began to let their guards down and sought to understand each other’s hard wiring. For them, the light bulb went off while sharing their very different Myers-Briggs profiles. They began to see that different communication styles didn’t necessarily mean ill intent. Then, it got intense. Bill and Samantha had a set of candid, difficult conversations about how their respective behaviors were being perceived by the other and the resulting damage. And, finally, they gave each other permission to not let those unproductive actions and behaviors (whether true or perceived) fester and frustrate. They committed to openly call each other out and discuss their differences.

The result – the team is humming now. It’s truly amazing the amount of time and energy that is now being spent on running their business rather than on angst, stress, and the resulting inefficiencies. Not only that, but Bill and Samantha have helped the entire team reach a place of increased transparency. They are all more willing to call each other out on unproductive behavior and missed or insufficient deliverables. Even better, they no longer take these conversations personally.

Why is holding our peers accountable so very hard?
What I see with my clients everyday is core to human nature. We tend to think “who am I to give a peer tough feedback about bad behavior?” Or, we don’t want to disrupt the “harmony” on the team by calling someone out on a missed deadline. And sometimes, we’ve simply already made a judgment call about one another and we’re not willing to give a colleague a shot at redemption.

But the thing about peer-to-peer accountability is this – it’s probably the toughest behavior to master on a team. It often feels messy and uncomfortable. And it’s not something most of us have had much experience with. But it’s worth it. Teams who can call each other out on lack of follow-through or missed deadlines and broken rules are the ones that excel. They are efficient and productive. They have fun, and their relationships are stronger because of it.

So how do you tackle this accountability challenge?
Here are a couple of tips gleaned from clients who are working on peer-to-peer accountability everyday:

  • Let your guard down. Peer-to-peer accountability can only be truly effective when you trust each other.
  • Give permission to others first. Take the lead in asking for help and insight. Ask your teammates to help you by holding you accountable when you happen to let them down, or come across the wrong way, or steamroll their ideas.
  • Assume positive intent. Keep your eye on the prize – which is the collective results of your organization. Don’t take feedback personally.
  • Give the benefit of the doubt. Ask why before you make a judgment call about someone’s behavior. Understand your teammates motives and intentions before deciding that their actions signal a lack of trust.
  • Get comfortable being uncomfortable. One of our hardest jobs as teammates is to be forthright with our peers. Remember that you are part of a team whose job is essential to your organization’s success. You owe it to one another to do the things you said you’d do and in a manner that works for the team. If not, you’re only hurting the organization.

If you and your teammates can master peer-to-peer accountability with each other, you have a game-changer on your hands. Once you start to see and feel your productivity rising and the tension disappearing – you’ll be humming.