The Best Teams Build Up Accountability With Each Other (But Not in the Way You Think)

Practicing accountability while working on teams is critical to any team’s success. Team experts like Patrick Lencioni, Thomas Kayser, and John Maxwell all list accountability as one of the top traits of high-performance teams. Making sure that people are delivering on their commitments is essential to making sure a team is effective. Members who make commitments but then don’t deliver will quickly bring a team to its knees.

Having worked with and coached dozens teams of all different types over the last two decades, I’ve learned that building a culture of accountability is one of the single most important interventions I can make. However, I’ve noticed there are different approaches to accountability and that some are more successful than others. As I’ve honed my approach to team development, I’ve found a few key steps to the accountability conversation that work well. The trick is to shift the mindset from one of punishment to one of support.

Many teams start raising the accountability level by calling people out publicly when they fall short. While this raises the awareness about commitments and gets people to think twice before signing up–and once they do, can get them to double down on effort–it ultimately undermines a team’s success. Focusing on punishment motivates people to engage in two counterproductive tendencies.

First, when faced with possible punishment, people tend to play it safe. They hesitate to stretch themselves to try new things. This shuts down learning and development since most growth occurs outside of a person’s comfort zone, when they are stretching themselves. If someone is afraid of punishment, they have little incentive to learn.

Second, people will stick with the tried and true rather than experimenting with new, possibly better, approaches to their work. If people are afraid that they’ll be called out if they fail, they won’t experiment. Unfortunately, this shuts down innovation and creativity; creativity is ultimately how a team, and a company, makes future improvements.

To avoid creating a culture of accountability based on blame and punishment, focus on creating one of support and accomplishment instead. Here are five simple steps to structuring these conversations–what I call the five R’s–so that accountability becomes a positive aspect of your culture and productive outcome for your team.

1. Reinforce the relationship.

Always start by reinforcing the importance and commitment to the personal relationship. Our worst psychological fear is that we’ll be exiled by our tribe and naturally we want to avoid this result. The goal here to create a psychological safety net by assuring your people that they are not being singled out or punished.

2. Restate the team and individual commitment.

Great teams attack issues, not people. Instead of focusing the person’s actions, or lack thereof, focus on the commitments that were made. I suggest starting with the team commitment and then moving onto the individual commitment. More often than not, this is where the issue lies; people often don’t realize that a formal commitment and deadline were made and set. Once you start recording your commitments, many of your accountability issues will improve.

3. Reflect on the situation.

Be open to new information and learning by getting curious. Ask open-ended questions to pull the key information out that is needed to fix the situation. Avoid blaming or critical questions. Keep it neutral and stay open-minded to new insights and possibilities. Sometimes not meeting a commitment is not a bad thing if it would have risked a higher-level goal.

4. Redouble your support.

Strong teams know they all succeed or fail together. And even if someone has to put in extra time or effort to help someone else get his or her task done, she does so without a second thought. Team members know that everyone is working hard and pushing themselves.

5. Resolve to take action.

Make sure you conclude with specific actions and new commitments. Just because something was missed doesn’t mean it can be put aside. Either re-commit to it with new deadlines and actions, or agree that it’s no longer a task and strike it from the list.

By shifting your culture from one of blame and punishment to one of support and accomplishment, your team will be more successful and improve more quickly. It will also be a lot more enjoyable.

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