As a leader, how do you hold your team accountable? What do you do specifically that empowers team members to be accountable to each other, the organization and the results that you are all responsible for? Is accountability perceived as a negative or a positive in your culture?
In their book The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization, Douglas Smith and Jon Katzenbach discuss the attributes of a high-performing team. They discuss mutual accountability and how important it is to drive success in creating high performance. However, accountability is, at times, perceived as a negative word in the organization, and it can trigger anxiety and fear among team members.
In my over 20 years as a leader, I always felt that I set a tone of accountability with my teams so that we delivered for each other and the organization. What I learned later on when looking back is that it was my style that drove accountability, and not in a positive sense at times, as I wanted to win—which placed that above everything else when it came to the team dynamics. This meant that you either matched that intensity, attempted to keep up or eventually could experience burnout with all that was being asked.
Now that I have been coaching executive leaders and their teams for the past nine years, accountability is a topic that comes up frequently, which triggers my past experiences. This causes me to pause before we proceed to unpack what they are looking to achieve so that accountability is a positive term in their culture that everyone can celebrate rather than fear.
In this article, I wanted to lay out a process to develop what I refer to as "positive accountability" in the culture of your team as well as your organization. What would it look like if everyone could view accountability as something they celebrated together so that the team could win together?
Step 1: Establish the mindset of positive accountability.
Leaders can struggle with this first step as it's hard to measure the level of accountability within the team and to each other, and it can be especially hard to establish it as a positive in the culture. Establish this mindset with the team by actively engaging in conversations around accountability and what it means to the team. Questions that you can get curious about with your team members could include the following:
How do we currently view the term accountability in our culture?
• What do we expect from each other when we discuss accountability as a team?
• How do we want to show up together to ensure we have a positive mindset around accountability?
Whenever we are establishing a new mindset, it is going to take time, so make sure to continue to have this conversation openly and allow everyone to contribute so that there is ownership together as a team.
Step 2: Create a team contract focused on behaviors that support positive accountability.
A crucial step that most teams or organizations never take is to work as a team to create the behaviors together that will support success in this area. Accountability tends to be looked at as a negative or with fear when it's applied only when things go wrong. Discussions with phrases from leaders such as "I'm going to hold you accountable" have a less-than-inspirational tone, to say the least. Create a contract with your team where everyone makes commitments regarding how they will contribute to the positive accountability culture moving forward. Here are some sample questions you can use during this conversation:
• How do we want to communicate with each other when it comes to holding each other accountable?
• What guardrails do we need to establish when things become negative to get back on track?
• What are we committed to as a team when it comes to our responsibility to implement positive accountability with each other when together?
• How will we measure our progress toward establishing positive accountability on the team?
Step 3: Review your progress consistently and flex where needed.
Again, establishing a new mindset and behaviors to support success in any area takes time as we push beyond our old habits and create new ones that will accelerate our performance. You will need to make sure sufficient time is made for this last step, as our day-to-day can be hectic and conversations such as this that are qualitative and hard to measure can take a backseat if we don't keep them top of mind.
There was a strategy to building a team contract as we discussed in step 2, as now we have commitments that everyone has contributed to, and now it becomes an objective conversation where either we are leaning into positive accountability or we are not. If not, what do we need to do in order to shift back to these commitments? When implemented in this manner, it becomes an open discussion and not a dictation, as we all created our norms together. Should we get off course, it's just a matter of how we get back.
Accountability is about driving results for the organization, and it is such an important piece of culture to highlight, set expectations around and co-create together so that we all have an understanding of what it means to truly be accountable to each other.
What if your team were able to shift its collective mindset to drive accountability as a positive attribute? What if your team members were able to co-create what that meant and make commitments to each other so that there was true ownership? Lastly, what if you were able to review your progress at a minimum once a quarter in this space and flex back if needed?
I hope this framework will assist in implementing a process to create a culture of positive accountability so that your teams will thrive and support each other to achieve new heights.
Bryan Powell, Executive Coaching Space
PCC, CPBA, CPMA