Guest post from Eric Coryell:
Accountability. Good employees are accountable. Good leaders hold their employees accountable. Good organizations have accountable cultures. But what does it really mean to be accountable? And what happens when someone isn’t accountable? How leaders deal with non-accountable behavior goes a long way to defining the culture of an organization.
The generally accepted definition of being accountable is that “you do what you say you are going to do.” Yet everyone will inevitably fail on this accord. Does that mean they are not accountable? I think it is when someone does not “do what they said they would do” that accountability is determined. Someone who is non-accountable will tend to make excuses, point fingers, deny, deflect or refuse to change. Accountable people will take responsibility for not delivering on the desired results and start doing something differentuntil the desired results are achieved.
Wouldn’t life be great if everyone exhibited accountable behavior 100% of the time? As great as that idea sounds it is not realistic and leaders must decide what to do when one of their reports is not acting accountably. This action is generally known as holding someone accountable. To effectively hold someone accountable the leaders sets the foundation by setting clear expectations, contracting, incentivizing, and putting feedback mechanisms in place. If the employee does not deliver on the desired results and then doesn’t act accountably the leader has to step in and coach, reassess, train, or even (re)set consequences. Continued non-accountable behavior can lead to disciplinary actions and even termination.
But who really has the accountability during this process? Who is the one doing something different until the desired results are achieved? The leader! The whole notion of holding someone accountable is really a myth. When a leader says they are holding someone accountable what they are really saying that they are taking the accountability away from the individual. They are now the ones that are doing something different until the desired results are achieved. And if they don’t achieve the desired results their leader is going to do the same thing to them. This is called leader-led accountability and is the norm in most organizations.
There are two significant problems with this approach to managing accountability. One is that not everyone is good at taking the accountability from their employees (formerly known as “holding them accountable”). Some leaders are afraid of alienating their employees so they shy away from it or they convince themselves they can’t do that until they are perfectly accountable themselves. The second problem is that it creates very upward looking organizations. Employees are constantly looking up to their boss as they are the ones whose expectations they have to meet and they are the ones who will take their accountability away if they don’t meet them.
But there is another way a leader can manage accountability and that is by setting up their team to be accountable. On accountable teams when someone fails to meet expectations and aren’t doing something different to get those results, the team members step in. To many this sounds Pollyanna but more than likely you have been on accountable team at some point in your life. Take a moment and think of the best team you have ever been a part of. It might be your family, a high school sports team, volunteer organization, or a work team. As you think about that team, I am confident it had the basics of all functional teams: (1) clear purpose, (2) some way of measuring whether you were achieving that purpose, (3) competent people, and (4) capable process. But if it was a really good team than it probably had one more thing and that was a willingness and ability to deal with any issues that were getting in the way of the team achieving its purpose. This meant when there were team members not upholding their end of the deal the other team members took the accountability and addressed the issue(s).
What made this all possible and what separates that team from most teams you have been on are two things. First there was a real and meaningful shared fate on the team. In other words, what happened to one, happened to all. You either won together or you lost together. This provided the motivation for the team members to take on the accountability issue. The second thing your best team had was a real and meaningful level of trust amongst the team members. This made it possible to deal with those real issues without damaging the team.
For today I want to focus on how to do the first step and that is to build a meaningful shared fate on the team. Good coaches know how to do this (e.g. when someone is late for practice, everybody runs) as does the military – think boot camp. In my experience I have come to realize that few business leaders do. They typically look at their employees as having separate accountabilities (“John is accountable for sales, Mary is accountable for operations, etc.”) and then wonder why they aren’t functioning as a team. Building a shared fate starts with the leader thinking of their team as a group of individuals who are responsible for achieving the team’s purpose and achieving the team’s metrics. When the leader starts thinking in those term’s they start engaging in the behaviors necessary to build a shared fate on the team. You can help build a shared fate by putting everyone’s desk in the same office, by making it hard to get on the team, by going through a difficult situation together, by sharing a common passion for the outcome, or even by creating a common enemy. However, you choose to do it, leaders and coaches who want their team to become accountable must first focus on creating a real and meaningful shared fate for the team. As that happens the accountability burden starts to become less for the leader.
ERIC CORYELL dedicates his time to helping organizations engage their employees through strategic alignment, leadership development, and the creation of functional and accountable teams. Eric’s new book is Revolutionize Teamwork, a quick read packed with valuable information that shows you how to create and lead accountable teams built on shared trust. Using the principles Eric outlines in this book leads to teams that are better able to make decisions and are motivated by group success.