Written by Keith Ayers.

 In a global study reported in Harvard Business review, 46% of high-level managers were found to be poor at holding people accountable.

The finding was the same for C-level executives, directors and middle managers. It held up, with minor regional variations, across different cultures including US, Europe, Latin America and Asia-Pacific.

We all know that accountability is important in teams. But why is it so important?

Well, research shows that accountability is a characteristic of high-performance teams.  Accountability amongst team members drives greater innovation, trust and productivity. And accountability frees team leaders from having to constantly micromanage their team members.

Conversely, a lack of accountability is a sure sign of a failing team. In Jim Collins’ classic book How the Mighty Fall, he identifies the tell-tale signs of a company on its way down. One of the most revealing signs is an unwillingness of team members to accept responsibility for mistakes and an eagerness to shift the blame onto others.

Identifying and remedying a lack of accountability is often the key to turning a company around.

Let me share a story to illustrate this…

Turning around the underachieving sales team

I was working with a small organisation of ten people a couple of years ago which was struggling to meet its sales targets. Their two-person sales team had been given a target number of calls they should be making every week to achieve their sales targets. Both salespeople were achieving their required number of calls, according to their submitted call reports.

But they weren’t hitting their monthly sales targets.

When challenged, the response from the salespeople was, “It’s not our fault – we’re making the calls!”

And when the salespeople were questioned about the disappointingly low conversion rate from calls to opportunities, the response was, “Everyone picks on the sales team!”

As you can see, there was no accountability for results in the sales team.

So, the sales manager changed the target from the number of calls made per week to the number of opportunities created per month. They also added a financial sales target per salesperson. It didn’t matter how many calls they made, as long as they created the opportunities and achieved the sales targets.

I facilitated The Five Behaviors for the whole organisation, which made it clear that team members are expected to hold each other accountable.

The outcome?

Both salespeople resigned within a couple of months.

It took the sales manager a few months to recruit new salespeople who were willing to take ownership of achieving their sales goals. Within six months, they were consistently hitting or exceeding their sales targets.

Understanding accountability

Accountability is the fourth of Patrick Lencioni’s Five Behaviors. Simply put, accountability is the willingness to be held accountable by your peers for doing the things you committed to doing.

Well, that’s the basic definition. But it goes deeper than that.

Let’s examine this further:

Accountability and responsibility

 Accountability and responsibility are often conflated. Both concepts have similarities, but there are important differences.

Let us consider a team member who’s been given a task to fulfil. By accepting responsibility, the team member is agreeing to take charge of a task.  But by accepting accountability, the team member is agreeing to be answerable for the success or failure of the task.

 This is why focusing on accountability, and not merely responsibility is essential for optimising team performance.

Personal accountability and team accountability

When working in teams, there are two types of accountability:

  • Personal accountability measures and rewards individual performance. While it can drive success on an individual level, it often creates competition within a team. This can undermine teamwork and overall team performance.
  • Team accountability measures and rewards team performance. It drives team members to cooperate to achieve greater success on a collective basis. Individuals operating with selfish motives may need to be replaced if their self-focus is harming team performance and they are unwilling to change.

As you can see, for organisational success, team accountability must be prioritised. This is not to say that individual performance should not be recognised. It can and should, but only in the context of contribution to team performance.

Avoidance of accountability

The thing with accountability is that people tend to avoid it. There are two aspects to this:

  • People want to avoid being held accountable. You cannot force people to become accountable. Accountability requires putting group interests above individual interests. The thing is, people will not be accountable until they choose to be accountable.
  • People want to avoid holding others into account. People are concerned about not giving offence. They want to be well-liked and popular. They are aware that voicing criticism of others can lose their support from within the group.

Remember, accountability is a choice. Creating an environment where people want and choose to be accountable takes time and commitment.

Let’s start by looking at the people in your team:

The two categories of accountability in team members

Some team members are more inclined towards accountability than others. We can break people down into two categories: other-directed and self-directed.

Other-directed people

Other-directed people believe they have no control over their own lives and are controlled by people in authority:

  • They act on the belief that “I have to do this.”
  • As a consequence, they resist or resent being told what to do. They resist by outright refusing to do the work. They resent by doing the work but grudgingly, and only well enough not to get into trouble.
  • They don’t accept responsibility.
  • They undermine the team by acting like a victim or seeking out revenge. They act like a victim by whining to other teammates. They seek out revenge by slowing down their output or even sabotaging projects. The most common form of revenge is to do as little as possible – just enough to stay out of trouble.

Self-directed people

Self-directed people believe they have control over their own lives and are autonomous beings:

  • They act on the belief that “I choose to do this.”
  • They agree or disagree when presented with a new task. If they agree, they will perform the work to the best of their ability as they have chosen to do it. If they disagree, they will explain to their teammates the reasons why.
  • They accept the consequences of their choice. If they agree with the task, they will accept the consequences if they don’t give their best. If they disagree with the task, they will accept any negative consequences that follow.
  • They accept responsibility for their actions and are willing to hold themselves accountable and be held accountable by others.

From other-directed to self-directed

Some people behave in an other-directed way because they have never learned to be self-directed. This behaviour is described in Dr. Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism as learned helplessness.

Children who are brought up in authoritarian homes, schools or churches are not given the freedom to choose for themselves. They often develop into other-directed people. When entering the workforce, they gravitate towards authoritarian organisations where they do not have to make decisions and will be told what to do.

The good news is that other-directed behaviour does not have to be permanent. As Dr. Seligman tells us, people who were conditioned to be other-directed in their childhood can learn to become self-directed as adults.

The role of the leader in developing accountability

So we’ve seen that self-directed behaviour is the foundation of accountability. The challenge for leaders is knowing how to create a culture that cultivates self-directed behaviour over other-directed behaviour.

Leaders typically tend towards either a control-based approach or a trust-based approach.

Control-based approach

A control-based approach is one where leaders make all the decisions and expect team members to carry them out:

  • Trust is low. Leaders convey the message that team members cannot be trusted to make decisions or think for themselves.
  • Leaders micromanage team members, requiring strict adherence to policies and procedures.
  • Team members’ activities are closely monitored via security cameras, time clocks and email surveillance.

A control-based approach leads to an authority-based environment.

Authority-based environments create people who don’t want to be accountable. When goals are not met, everyone points fingers at each other. Leaders blame team members for their lack of initiative. Team members blame leaders because they were not consulted about the choice of goals or how to achieve them.

Trust-based approach

A trust-based approach is one where leaders trust team members to take ownership of their roles:

  • Leaders believe in team members and trust them to do the right thing without the need for constant supervision.
  • Team members are fully involved in decision making. They are encouraged to challenge any policy or procedure that doesn’t make sense or doesn’t work.
  • Team members understand the purpose of what they are doing beyond merely following rules and guidelines.

A trust-based approach leads to an accountability-based environment.

Accountability-based environments create people who are willing to be held accountable for their decisions, actions and results. They are clear on the team’s goals, having had a chance to have their say on the direction taken. Their personal goals align with the organisation’s goals and they work with passion and commitment.

From authority-based to accountability-based

Authority-based organisations can transition to become accountability-based. But this takes time and effort, and it’s not something that can happen overnight.

First, leaders must accept responsibility for contributing to the existing authority-based environment. Next, they need to work with their team in building a culture of trust, where the focus is on finding solutions together, not on finding people to blame.

This is an excellent way to start the process:

When a team member comes to you with a problem, don’t make the decision for them. Rather, ask them to define the problem, then ask them what they think the best solution is.

If the team member doesn’t have a solution, ask them to consider possible solutions and evaluate them one by one. By doing so, you are challenging them to use their problem-solving abilities and accomplish things on their own. You are trusting them to become more confident, more committed and more accountable.

When you put this in action, the results can transform your entire organisation. Here’s a great example:

The Delaware Call Centre Case Study

An organisation in Delaware selling medical equipment has a call centre that provides technical assistance to its customers. The newly appointed vice president came to us after discovering that the call centre was rated last in the industry for customer satisfaction, scoring below 50%.

We worked with the management team to implement Integro’s Leadership Development Process and create a work environment where employees would be more engaged, more self-directed and more accountable for increasing customer satisfaction.

About a year into the process, after seeing some improvement in customer satisfaction ratings, the vice president asked employees to set their own target for customer satisfaction scores. After some discussion, employees came back with a target of 96%, a score which would put them at the top of the industry. Although the management thought they were aiming too high, the employees were confident they could achieve it.

Not only did the call centre employees reach their goal within the next 18 months, they soon surpassed it, achieving a 98% average in customer satisfaction scores and even hitting 100% many times.

The Customer Service Representatives owned the numbers. If the results each month were below 100%, they took responsibility for identifying what needed to be improved to get to 100%.

By allowing employees to set their own goal and take ownership of it, their work became more meaningful to them and they were able to apply themselves with passion and commitment.

In short, they became self-directed and fully accountable members of their organisation.

The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team solution

At Intégro, we offer a corporate training and assessment-driven solution that includes the nurturing of accountability.

Our solution is The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team®.

The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team is based on the approach outlined in Patrick Lencioni’s best-selling book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and is powered by Everything DiSC® personal development assessment technology.

The objective of The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team is to develop the kind of teamwork which will foster a competitive advantage.

The five behaviours required to gain this competitive advantage are for team members to:

  • Trust one another
  • Engage in conflict around ideas
  • Commit to decisions
  • Hold one another accountable
  • Focus on achieving collective results

The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team approach has a proven track record and has been successfully used by leading companies across different industries including Microsoft, Lee Memorial Health Systems, and Harris Farm Markets.

Want to learn more about how to earn the trust of your team and increase your bottom line?  Click Here

Everything DiSC and The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team are trademarks of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Keith Ayers- February 2018