It was a harsh lesson in accountability.
I don’t remember why I was late, but I was late.
I was dishevelled, probably hungover and looked like crap.
The rest of the soldiers in my platoon were on time, looked good and were all formed up.
I fully expected to be punished for screwing up, but I did not expect that the entire platoon would be confined to barracks for my mistake.
I was responsible for my friends and peers losing their freedom. I knew it, and to my great horror, they knew it.
You see the Army knows that as an individual you might be willing to let yourself done, but you would rather die than let your peers down. They drive accountability to your peers.
Accountability is the glue that holds high performing teams together
The Sticking Point
Even with the proven success of high-performance teams that have high levels of peer-to-peer accountability, there always seems hesitancy by leaders to make it central to their organization.
Over 200 teams have taken my Team Online Assessment and of the five key behaviours of high-performing teams – trust, healthy conflict, commitment/decision-making, accountability, and team-oriented results – it is accountability that team’s rate as the most problematic.
Why is this?
For some leaders, there is a 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 behaviour is bad, even when it hurts team results.
In some cases, the hesitancy can be caused by a 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 start a feeling of 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?
How did you feel about it? Resentful?
Accountability in Action
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. As leaders begin to model this behaviour, it will permeate throughout the rest of the organization. For most, this causes a sigh of relief because, ultimately, people do want to 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:
What behaviours/actions are acceptable on the team? Team members need to identify what behaviours 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 behaviours that detract from the team.
Where will these conversations happen? 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.
When will we bring it up? Team 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? However, allowing a specific commitment to go unmet more than a few days can make it more difficult to discuss.
What manner/style should be used to bring up issues? 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?
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 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 breakdown 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 to have effective peer-to-peer accountability will avoid costly and difficult situations and freely march toward their desired results.
I have seen the power of accountability play out in a number of settings. In my previous careers, I was fortunate to be part of high-performing teams and if I could point to one distinct behaviour of those highly successful teams, it would be peer-to-peer accountability.
Regardless of your organization’s size or industry, a strong commitment to accountability is perhaps the greatest indicator for achieving long-term success.