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Thoughts from the Field - Issue #13 - Accountability – A Precursor to Success

By Pat Richie - November 2012

Accountability–A Precursor to Success

About five years ago two NFL teams replaced their very hard-nosed coaches. Players on both teams believed the new guys selected were going to be very different from their past coaches. In fact, the players from both teams told the press how great it would be to now have a “players coach”.

Team A had one player who said, “The last guy was just too hard on us!” Much to the delight of the players of Team A, practices were easier, pressure was off and life seemed good. Many spoke of how beloved the new coach of Team A was by everyone! Unfortunately, Team A always seemed to under-perform, never reaching their potential. In a few short years the team seemed to quit on the coach and he was let go. On the day of his firing one player who complained about the prior coach being “too hard” now said, this coach was…..”too soft on us.”

Team B got a bit of a shock when the coach they were so anxious to have began the first practice by openly naming players who had not met team preparation and training commitments. Name after name was called out; the players were in shock. This became a “mention” you didn’t want, and it changed the level of everyone’s commitment. Several admitted they didn’t like the new guy very much those first few weeks. But once the season started, they ripped their first three opponents to shreds. They have enjoyed great success and continue to be one of the leagues elite teams. How do the players feel about their leader now? They like the results and in fact they like him, not simply because he is likeable (and he is), but he gets the most out of his team collectively.

The Sticking Point
Even with the proven success of sports teams that employ high levels of peer-to-peer accountability, there always seems hesitancy by some to make it central to their organization.

This phenomena plays-out in organizations of all kinds. Over 20,000 teams have taken The Five Dysfunctions of a Team Online Assessment. Of the five key behaviors of high performing teams: trust, healthy conflict, commitment/decision-making, accountability, and team oriented results, it is accountability that teams rate as the most problematic.

Why is this? For some leaders, there is a strong temptation to be popular with their team. Who doesn’t want to be well liked? Others don’t want to confront a high performer whose behavior is bad, even when it hurts team results. In some cases, the hesitancy can be caused by a family member or close friend in their organization whom the leader just can’t bear to confront because of their personal relationship. While this feeling of discomfort is real, the implication for not facing these issues is often poor results. It is fair to say, those same people in your organization won’t like you if you fail either.

A leader’s avoidance of accountability can have a systemic impact starting with resentment from those with different personal standards of performance. And, this resentment is deep. Think about this on a personal level…have you ever had a job where you performed well, met your numbers, had a good attitude, arrived early and stayed late while the person sitting near you rarely hit their numbers, had a bad attitude and did as little as possible? Well, how did you feel about it? Most people resent it. We find the most common, verbally expressed frustration is the resentment over the continued avoidance and/or the un-even use of accountability.

Accountability in Action
Fortunately, improving an organization’s ability to gain advantage using peer-to-peer accountability is less difficult, and quicker, than it may appear. The leadership team must set the example and openly commit to holding one another accountable. Once the team at the top understands that a culture of accountability is necessary and critical to success, they are usually quite willing. As leaders begin to model this behavior, it will permeate throughout the rest of the organization. For most, this causes a sigh of relief because, ultimately, people do want have a sense of accomplishment at work.

Once leaders commit to accountability, some simple but specific guidelines are needed for it to take root. Discussing and coming to an agreement regarding the following four questions is a great place to start:

  1. What behaviors/actions are acceptable on the team?
    Team members need to identify what behaviors/actions are acceptable. Some examples include: not holding back in meetings, avoiding back channel-politics, full engagement in meetings, meeting commitments on time, and staying off email during meetings. Discussing, understanding and committing to these expectations in advance helps team members feel comfortable calling out these behaviors that detract from the team.
  2. Where will these conversations happen?
    This refers to the setting. The most common question regarding accountability is, “Should it be public or private?” We’ve found that high performing teams do this much more in public than in private. The whole team benefits from knowing the team standards are being upheld and the group often learns from observing the process. For teams that have never engaged in this kind of frank conversation, it may difficult to do publically at first. In this case, some low risk role-playing or a few successful private sessions will help build confidence. Of course, there may be some conversations that are just too private to do publicly. That said, these should be few and far between.
  3. When will we bring it up?
    TTeam members must consider the time frame for holding one another accountable. Should teams talk about it the moment an issue is suspected ? A day later? A week later? It’s hard to be prescriptive here because teams vary so much in the nature of their work, travel, etc. However, allowing a specific commitment go unmet more than a few days can make it more difficult to discuss. Whatever it is, discuss what approach suits your team best and stick to it.
  4. What manner/style should be used to bring up issues?
    This is a “demeanor” question. Team members tend to be more comfortable when they know how their colleagues are going to deliver feedback. Will teammates be careful not to offend or will they come-across straight forward? Will the feedback come out of anger or a desire to help? (I had one team who worked together for a long time and they were confident in the strength of their relationships and very much wanted to be accountable. The group decided sarcasm was a strength of theirs and they enjoyed it. So, they decided their chosen manner/style would be just that). While our consultants don’t routinely recommend sarcasm, we do recommend teams decide on a style that works for them.

The key to success in the area of accountability is that everyone on a team feels empowered to hold other team members accountable, according to one (or more) of the four agreements. For accountability to become ingrained in the culture, exceptions should not be allowed. Additionally, no one team member should be above accountability and all team members, not just a select few, should be responsible for enforcing it.

Accountability is absolutely essential in developing a high performing team. Teams that are behaviorally and intellectually aligned, have constructive conflict and make firm commitments need to have the ability to push each other to stick to those commitments in the spirit of achieving results. When teams suffer from a break down in accountability, results do suffer.

For teams that have never engaged in this direct form of feedback, it may seem harsh. In reality, it is quite the opposite. To hold a team member accountable for his/her actions shows that person you actually care about them enough to take the interpersonal risk to discuss the issue. When feedback is given according to the outlined agreements, it can help a team member’s personal/professional development and the progress of the team. Those that are able have effective peer-to-peer accountability will avoid costly and difficult situations and freely march toward their desired results.

On a personal note, I have seen power of accountability play-out in a number of settings. In my previous career, I was fortunate to be part of five Super Bowl Championships, a World Series appearance and several Stanley Cup runs, all as a team chaplain. If I could point to one distinct behavior of those highly successful teams, it would be peer-to-peer accountability. This insight has been re-confirmed time and time again during the last eight years as a Principal Consultant at The Table Group. Regardless of your organization’s size or industry, a strong commitment to accountability is perhaps the greatest indicator for achieving long-term success.