Accountability How-to Teams and group dynamics

Is accountability your team’s Achilles heel?

Accountability – or the lack thereof – is the Achilles Heel of many a potentially great team, group or organisation. Part of the problem is that accountability has become just another buzzword. (It’s like the weather: we love to talk about it but we seldom do anything about it.) It’s also an uncomfortable subject, being frequently confused with blamestorming. When the going gets tough it’s easy to forget that accountability is simply the ability to account for one’s actions. It’s holding others able to describe a chain of events, for better or worse.

Like accounting, accountability is concerned with (literally) summing up positives and negatives to determine a net result. Accounting is emphatically not about finger-pointing, judgment or shaming, and neither is accountability. Balance sheets and P&Ls are just tools for analysis, a means of figuring out how to make a business more profitable. Similarly, accountability can and should be an instrument for making teamwork more effective and productive. You wouldn’t shout at the numbers and call them names, but that’s the kind of pointless exercise that is sometimes passed off as accountability in many a meeting. Judgment and blame do absolutely nothing to rectify the issue or prevent a recurrence. We need to take the heat out of accountability and approach it more like accountants approach their numbers: respectfully and free from emotional baggage.

Of course this is easier said than done. We’re all human and we have feelings; no one likes to be the bearer of bad news that might let the team down, never mind admit to personal failure. For those on the receiving end, frustration and anger are equally enervating. As Dr. Brené Brown notes in her must-see TED Talk about vulnerability, “The psychological literature describes blame as a way to discharge pain and discomfort.” No wonder we so often wind up playing the blame game.

How many meetings or rehearsals have you attended where precious time and energy were wasted defending actions or deflecting feelings of guilt or shame by making someone wrong – preferably someone else? When our identity or self-concept is threatened, it’s easy to double down on our righteousness. It’s much harder to admit fault and learn from the situation. The latter demands humility and vulnerability; the former just requires ego. Guess which is typically in greater supply?

Accountability as learning

This is why leaders need to model accountability. Learning is critical, not just for the individual but for the entire team or organisation, and it’s hard to learn if you’re busy justifying, defending or deflecting. By admitting to your own mistakes you make it OK for others to do so. This is the paradox of trust: only when we allow others to see our weaknesses do they reciprocate and trust us in kind. (Consider the origins of the handshake, a symbolic show of unilateral disarmament and vulnerability.)

Disclosure also creates empathy and allows others to close ranks around the vulnerable party. If this sound counter-intuitive, consider the following: Who is more trustworthy, the person who proactively calls for help when a project is in danger of going sideways, or the one who tries to cover up until the problem spirals out of control? The sooner a issue is identified, the sooner it can be fixed. In the short term it’s aggravating when a team member screws up, but in the longer term being accountable leads to greater learning, group cohesion and trust. The flip side – denial – risks collective failure by maintaining the illusion of individual infallibility.

Accountability is a team sport

Leaders are not solely responsible for maintaining accountability, however. It must be a team sport. Having only one or two team members repeatedly play the “bad cop” sets up a straw man scenario, particularly on a team of equals where there isn’t a clear supervisory or managerial relationship; instead of being seen as allies, team mates become the enemy. If everyone holds each other accountable then no one can get away with thinking, “Oh, it’s only John – he just doesn’t like me,” or “There goes Jane again, she thinks she runs the place.”

Here are a seven additional principles to help build a culture of accountability in your creative team or organisation:

  • Stay out of judgment. As indicated above, judgment doesn’t accomplish anything – but offering assistance, feedback, and support does. Flag judgmental language if and when it happens in team meetings and elsewhere.
  • Equate accountability with learning opportunities. This is sound advice in most situations but it’s particularly true where personal and team accountability are an issue. The question is not, “Who screwed up?” but, “How can we fix it and move forward?” Discuss it openly to improve communication and strengthen the team bond. When things go right, acknowledge the win and build on team strengths.
  • Ensure role and task clarity. Too often team members simply aren’t clear on their job or role boundaries, expectations, and desired outcomes. Meetings often end with only tacit understanding of what these are, but they must be made explicit.
  • Adopt an “accountabili-buddy.” Having a partner to help keep you on track and offer support in between meetings or formal reports increases the likelihood of attaining individual objectives. While the psychosocial risk of admitting failure in front of the larger group can be a motivator for some, for many it’s a terrifying prospect that can lead to avoidance of accountability.
  • Consistency is key. Inconsistently applied, accountability devolves into blamestorming. You can’t selectively apply a rule and expect everyone to follow it uniformly. Similarly, the least acceptable standard for one person sets the bar for everyone on the team. Either rehearsals always start on time or they don’t; it shouldn’t matter which orchestra member is late – including the conductor.
  • Ownership & input correlate with accountability. Given the opportunity to set their own milestones, deadlines, performance criteria, etc., team members tend to rise to the occasion more often than those whose every move and progress report is micromanaged. Our own personal standards are often higher than others’ anyway, and self-evaluation can be a powerful tool (especially when combined with #4 above). The difference between having someone check up on you and voluntarily checking in with that person is empowering and lead to improved accountability.
  • Be response-able as well as accountable. By this I mean that everyone should be held able to consciously choose an appropriate (i.e., solution-focused) response to every situation. Emotional reaction is nowhere near as effective as a considered response; anger and frustration are understandable but not productive. Establishing explicit ground rules for having difficult conversations, including conflict norming (a topic for a future post), is highly recommended. Teams should check in regularly to ensure they are mutually upholding those standards.

Accountability is an opportunity to celebrate successes and recognize strengths. It’s also a way to minimize the likelihood of mistakes and to reduce damage to team trust and cohesion when they happen. As with accounting, the pluses and minuses inevitably impact the bottom line.