More concerns and complaints have been raised about accountability among our clients than perhaps any other area of leadership. The theme of these concerns and complaints is always the same: accountability is about punishment, confrontation, failure, and blame. Yet, high-performing teams invariably practice accountability. The team members consistently hold themselves and each other accountable. And – here’s the vital difference – the culture of accountability that high-performing teams create is positive … not negative.
Replacing Command with Commitment
The secret to robust yet reaffirming accountability is in how you define and understand it. In our opinion, there is no better definition than the one we heard given by Don Tinney of EOS Worldwide. He stated that accountability equals a commitment that is owned and delivered. He further noted that, on this team, we have a rule: we always deliver on our commitments.
This view is radically different from people’s usual experience with accountability. First, it affirms that accountability does not get imposed from the outside; rather, accountability is accepted, owned, and driven from the inside. This perspective changes everything because it removes the element of top-down command and replaces it with individual choice and self-responsibility. Accountability becomes a commitment that I personally make to do something. The fact that it is my decision for which I am responsible creates internal motivation and energizes my determination to deliver on the commitment.
Second, this definition recognizes that accountability is not just about the individual – it is about the group. High-performing teams recognize that they stand or fall together. Each team member makes a commitment to do certain things, yet those commitments also belong to the group as a whole. That is why team members have both the right and responsibility to hold one another accountable.
Replacing Confrontation with Conversation
Recognizing that accountability involves both self-responsibility and mutual responsibility effectively changes the dynamic of the interactions that take place on the team. Rather than accountability being narrowly-defined as a confrontation that happens when something suddenly goes wrong, accountability becomes a natural part of the ongoing team conversation. “How are you doing on X?” is no longer a dreaded question that is only asked to uncover a team member’s failure, but is a habitual check-in about acknowledged responsibilities that elicits productive dialogue.
Many accountability updates might consist of the simple phrase, “Everything is on track here!” Or, they might open up avenues for improved performance. For instance, asking how things are going with each team member might spark discussion on how the team can collaborate more effectively to achieve their charter or how they can take advantage of an opportunity identified in the course of a team member’s work.
Will there be times when accountability discussions reveal that work is not on track? Of course. When that happens, however, the approach is never “Gotcha!” Rather, it is, “What happened and what can we do to help?” Why? Because, going back to Tinney’s definition, we (as a team) always deliver on our commitments. Therefore, an accountability discussion might center around how the team can work together to move past an obstacle that is impeding a team member’s work or how to shift responsibilities within the team to help a member who is in crisis.
A Culture of Positive Accountability
You can see how replacing command with commitment and confrontation with conversation completely changes how accountability is perceived and practiced within a team. Commitment and conversation are both positive, and they create a culture of positive accountability where team members are motivated – and empowered – to high performance.