What is accountability? It is “the obligation of an individual or organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner”. Taking responsibility for one’s action is has a powerful impact on team dynamics, and teammates have to make a habit of holding each other accountable.
However, most team members tend to shy away from holding their peers accountable. For Pat Lencioni, international best seller and expert of team dysfunctions, teams can be able to trust each other, engage in conflict, commit to actions, but still hesitate to hold each other accountable to what they’ve committed to. This is understandable: it’s one thing to disagree with somebody on an issue, but it’s another thing to say “I don’t think you’re doing this well”. It can get very uncomfortable.
A risk of obstructed collaboration
However, not getting over this discomfort will hamper productivity, cause teams to miss deadlines and lower the standards of performance. Team members that wand to avoid holding each other accountable will tend go straight to their manager if they notice a situation going astray, or worse, talk about it with other colleagues. Inevitably, this will create office politics and a toxic atmosphere in the team, which will in term lower performance. While the leader has to be the ultimate arbiter, the primary source of accountability should be peers among themselves. They will be the first to spot a problem, to observe and issue first hand and to immediately offer help.
All about trust
Peers have to get used to saying to one another “I think you need help”, and team leaders have to show that this a behavior they value and reward. When leaders hesitate to hold people accountable, which happens very often, it can have disastrous effects on the rest of the team. The only way to create a culture in which people will hold each other accountable is if they know the leader will step up and do it when necessary.
Another reason why colleagues often refrain from holding others accountable is because they feel like it’s not their place. However, dealing with people who have more expertise and knowledge than you doesn’t mean that you can’t challenge them or give them some input. In fact, the best ideas and the best coaching often come from people who are not embedded in an area, who are able to look at things with a fresh perspective. If you work in a team that has been able to build trust and vulnerability, it will be obvious that the goal is not to make the other look or feel bad, but rather to extend a helping hand.
Ultimately, teams that are able to create a culture of accountability with the support of their managers will lift up under performers, identify problems faster, hold each other to higher standards and reinforce trust.