Driving Commitment and Accountability in a Team

September 22, 2021

A team having a serious meeting

Commitment and accountability are two key capabilities to master in a strong team.  

The purpose of commitment is coordination actions between people. Making commitments is a matter of personal integrity. It means finishing the conversation with a “promise of action” not a statement of intent.  

Accountability means accepting responsibility for what we say we will do. It implies ownership, responsibility and agency.

Why is it challenging

Patrick Lencioni identifies avoidance of accountability as a real fear and the single most common area of team dysfunction. The reason we avoid it 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 behaviour or performance." — Patrick Lencioni

Compliance versus commitment

Compliance can be enough for routine day to day tasks (doing what you are told) but if you want to excel as a team you need commitment.

Compliance is doing what you are told. It means showing up and going through the motions. Compliance fails in particular when discretionary effort and creativity is involved.  

Commitment is engaging fully to get the job done. The motivation to commit comes from many places. Dan Pink has famously described three reasons: autonomy, mastery and purpose. To be committed it’s important you understand “why?”

Commitment doesn't always mean agreement

In some cases you might have to commit to a decision where you had a different point of  view. A great maxim is “dissent but commit”. Challenge clearly with your differing opinion but if a decision is made and you have signed up, you must commit wholeheartedly. This is the mark of a selfless team player.

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. — Patrick Lencioni, author of “Five Dysfunctions of a team”

How to 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 OK to do that?

e.g. To prepare the report for Juliee, I need the final numbers by Friday. Are you OK to do that?

Answers to commitment

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

2 definitive answers:1. Yes, I promise 2. No, I don't commit

... And 3 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 do y (I can promise to get it done if, for example, you help me for two hours or do this bit of it)

There are also non-commitments, which Kofman calls “weasel” commitments. Look out for these:

  • "We need to get this done by Friday", where nobody in particular is accountable.
  • "Ahmed will do that". An individual can not make a commitment on behalf of someone else.
  • "I assume that’s OK with you". You need to ask, not assume.
  • "Let me see what I can do". No commitment whatsoever.
  • "I will do my best"... Only slightly better.

Clarifying the commitment

Evaluate if you are happy with the commitment or whether you should perhaps ask for clarification.

One technique is to rephrase a commitment, and ask again. You are looking to clarify by getting a second yes.

You can also check for clarity by asking yourself these four questions:1. Do they understand the request?2. Do I believe they have the necessary tools and resources to fulfil the request?3. Do I believe the other people they depend on will deliver? 4. Have I anticipated and considered foreseeable risks?

Holding each other accountable to commitments

To hold one another accountable, team members need to feel safe to speak out and offer one another honest feedback. Psychological safety is a state where people feel accepted and understand that the team is a safe place to take risks and be vulnerable.

Collective accountability

Strong teams have both mutual and collective accountability – individuals hold one another accountable for what they say they will do and also feel collectively responsible for the team's successes and failures.  

Building a culture of mutual and collective accountability in your team can boost motivation, performance and ultimately drive better team results. We'll give you some tips to get started.

Remember it's about goals

Your team is working towards collective goals and therefore shares success or failure. Holding people to account can be uncomfortable in a person-to-person way, so remember that this is about achieving what you’ve set out to do.

Remind the team of why this commitment was important and how it supports business objectives.

Use peer review and peer feedback

Peer accountability is powerful because no one likes to let a team mate 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 bureaucracy in your team, as fewer issues will get escalated to management.

The key 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.

Think about how you manage failure

Accountability brings to the surface both the good and the bad, so it’s important to have a plan for managing failure. Punishment is never a good way to deal with mistakes, it’s likely to create fear and stifle innovation and learning.

Treat mistakes and failures as a learning opportunity. If you analyse the cause, you can decide what isn’t working and what you need to do about it.

You might even want to think about making this clear in your team’s culture: some teams have phrases like “safe to fail” in their core values.

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