Driving Commitment and Accountability in a Team

September 22, 2021

Accountability and Commitment

Accountability and commitment are two key capabilities you'll find in any high performing team. 

Why?

Because the best teams not only hold themselves accountable to the things they've committed to doing, but also each other. Whether this be completing a task on time, or achieving team goals.

Here's the thing though - personal accountability doesn't always always translate to team accountability. 

For the latter to happen, each individual team member has to be accountable for their own individual contribution to the team. And it's down to the manager to ensure this happens.

How?

By encouraging team members to honor their commitments. Something that is only possible when a conversation finishes with a "promise of action", and not a statement of intent. 

The bottom line is that without accountability, team members won't take ownership of tasks, work won't get finished, and commitment to achieving team goals will be lacking.

So, how can your managers improve accountability and drive commitment in their team?

We'll show you.

What is team accountability?

According to Henry Evans, “[Accountability is] clear commitments that in the eyes of others have been kept". 

The emphasis here being on the phrase "in the eyes of others". 

In high performing teams, accountability is demonstrated through transparency with one another, for example making commitments visible to teammates through the daily team standup, or in the project status update meeting. 

But that’s not the only way accountability shows up in the workplace.

What does accountability in the workplace look like?

In the workplace, accountability is often about setting goals and holding team members responsible for completing the tasks they've committed to.

But it’s also balanced with giving team members autonomy - because accountability doesn’t equate to micromanagement. 

But what does accountability look like?

Well some examples of workplace accountability includes:

  • Showing up on time
  • Establishing team norms around expected behavior including corrective actions
  • Setting out to accomplish what you’d say you’d do
  • Taking personal responsibility for assigned tasks
  • Trusting teammates to take responsibility for their assigned tasks
  • Establishing respect of one another and holding each other to the same high standards
  • Holding one another to account by identifying problems early and questioning one another

While your managers play a central role in ensuring the overall success of the team, team accountability doesn't mean that the manager is solely responsible for this.

Far from it. After all, it takes the entire team to achieve results.

What happens when there's a lack of accountability in a team?

The problem with the term 'team accountability' is that it's often only spoken about when something goes wrong. Resulting in it having a negative connotation. 

As an example, people often think that accountability is 'catching' employees making a mistake, or telling tales on coworkers.

Patrick Lencioni identifies avoidance of accountability as a real fear, and the single most common area of team dysfunction. And the reason we avoid it, he says, is because it's hard to do:

"The "wuss factor" happens when a team member or leader constantly balks when it's time to call someone out on their behavior or performance." — Patrick Lencioni

But what does a lack of accountability in a team look like?

  • Resentment between team members due to differing standards of performance
  • Decision making is a long process
  • Mediocrity in attitude, productivity and output
  • Failure to complete tasks, broken promises, vague expectations, or missed deadlines
  • Micromanagement

How to improve accountability and commitment in a team

Lack of accountability can lead to poor individual and team performance, low morale, increased employee turnover rates, and decreased productivity.

Unfortunately, lack of accountability is a very real problem for organizations, with 25% of managers claiming that it's their team's biggest challenge.

So, what's the solution?

Before we answer that, let's start with what isn't the solution - making everyone accountable for the same thing.

When everyone is accountable, no one is accountable

In this section, we'll dive into how managers can improve accountability in their teams, starting by getting initial commitment. 

How to get initial commitment

First things first - team commitment doesn’t always mean agreement. 

Take Jeff Bezos for example - he uses the ‘disagree and commit’ rule when decision making. 

This means that team members might have to commit to a decision where they had a different point of view, for the sake of moving forward. It doesn’t mean their opinion is ignored, it means that as a member of the team, their differing opinion is valued, but a decision has to be made.

And as a committed member of the team, they have to essentially disagree but commit. Because that is the mark of a selfless team player. 

As Patrick Lencioni says: 

“Teams that commit to decisions and standards of performance do not hesitate to hold one another accountable for adhering to those decisions and standards. What is more, they don’t rely on the team leader as the primary source of accountability, they go directly to their peers.”

So, how can your managers get initial commitment? 

The key is asking clearly. Try using this three part request:

1. The purpose: "in order to..."

2. The action: "I ask that you do X by Y..."

3. The agreement: "are you okay to do that?"

As an example, this could look like: "To prepare the report for Julie, I need the final numbers by Friday. Are you OK to do that?"

Fred Kofman points out that there are only five clear answers when you seek a commitment from someone.

Two are definitive answers:

1. "Yes, I promise"

2. "No, I don't commit"

And three are intermediate answers:

3. "I need clarification before I can answer"

4. "I promise to give you an answer by this date" - (commit to commit)

5. "I counter offer - I can't do X but I could try to do Y" - (I can promise to get it done if, for example, you help me for two hours or do this bit of it)

Managers need to be wary of non-commitments, which Kofman calls 'weasel' commitments.

An example of a 'weasel' team commitment?

  • "We need to get this done by Friday" - Nobody in particular is accountable
  • "Ahmed will do that" - An individual cannot make a commitment on behalf of someone else
  • "I assume that's okay with you" - You need to ask, not assume
  • "Let me see what I can do" - No commitment whatsoever
  • "I will do my best"... - Also no commitment

Six ways managers can increase accountability

Now that we've covered how managers can improve team commitment, let's look at how they can increase team accountability.

1. Define roles and responsibilities

When people know their roles and responsibilities, it helps develop a sense of ownership and they’re more likely to commit to their work. 

Defining roles and responsibilities is also beneficial for the whole team because it allows other team members to better understand how they all fit in together. This in turn supports team collaboration, creates transparency, enables better communication, and builds trust, because everyone knows what is expected of one another.

2. Improve psychological safety

Psychological safety and trust are the two pillars of accountability. Without them it’s hard for teams to flourish.

Holding team members accountable for their work without psychological safety can leave employees feeling stressed and anxious. 

By improving psychological safety in the team, people feel safer taking risks, giving and receiving feedback, and strive for excellence without fear of repercussions should their risk go wrong. 

3. Build habits around accountability

Managers should be encouraging team members to create an individual plan for their work, and then share this during the weekly team stand up (or daily on Slack).

For remote teams, this is particularly useful because natural oversight of one another’s work is lost when the team aren't physically together. 

Getting into the habit of sharing progress and regularly checking in on commitments helps reinforce accountability. Having regular check-ins as well as holding retros and reflecting at the end of each project all helps build accountability habits.  

4. Have a plan for managing failure

Managers should have a plan in place for managing failure.

Punishment is never a good way to deal with mistakes as it’s likely to create fear and stifle innovation and learning.

Instead, managers should treat mistakes and failures as a learning opportunity. When they analyze the cause, they can decide what isn’t working and what they need to do about it.

Encourage managers to think about making this clear in their team’s culture: some teams have phrases like ‘safe to fail’ as one of their core values for this very reason. 

5. Run a team accountability exercise 

Have managers set aside a time for the whole team to come together and discuss what accountability means to them. 

They should collectively write out a shared definition of what team accountability means specifically to the team, with each team member contributing examples of what they think accountability looks like in various common workplace situations. 

Document the findings and make sure that all team members, especially new team members, are aware of them. Incorporate accountability into the team norms and behaviors document as well. 

6. Encourage peer review and peer feedback

Peer accountability is powerful because no one likes to let a teammate down. Establishing a culture of peer review and feedback where people feel they can call one another out is an effective way to resolve performance issues as they happen. 

It’s also likely to reduce instances of bureaucracy in teams, as fewer issues will get escalated to management.

The key to peer review is to do this often, ideally in the moment. It’s best to hold somebody to account while they still have time to do something about it.

Accountability in hybrid teams

When teams are working remotely, it's even more important to foster accountability.

Why?

Because it takes a lot more effort and intentionality to resolve issues than when everyone is working in the same location. 

To ensure hybrid and remote working teams remain accountable, team managers should standardize remote working practices to make sure nothing slips through the gaps. 

These might include:

  • Outlining WFH policies
  • Clearly defining expectations around roles and responsibilities 
  • Establishing a framework to ensure expectations are met

Final thoughts on team accountability

High performing teams have a solid foundation of accountability. They include accountability as a team value and practice accountability daily, not just when something goes wrong, or at the quarterly meeting. 

They also make accountability a daily habit by openly communicating it, sharing their commitments with one another, and reporting on their progress. 

At Saberr, we help teams develop this as habit.

In fact, we help them develop all seven habits proven to drive high performance. 

To find out how we do this (hint: we use a combination of experiential and digital coaching), have a read of this, or alternatively book in for a chat at a time that suits you. 

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