Accountability is all the rage. Everyone believes it’s a key competency either leading them to or keeping them from success. And yet, most struggle to not only define it but to actually implement it into their culture. You might be asking yourself, what does a culture of accountability really look like? And do we have one?
To answer that question, think of the last team squabble you witnessed. How long did it take team members to speak up and resolve that issue? As it turns out, accountability can be measured by the lag between someone seeing something and someone saying something. In organizations with a strong accountability culture, that lag time will be nonexistent. In cultures where accountability wanes, people might not say anything at all.
But accountability is more than just a trend. Our research shows it’s a leading indicator of high performance. On top-performing teams, peers immediately and respectfully confront one another when problems arise. Not only does this drive greater innovation, trust and productivity, but it also frees leaders from the role of playing peacekeeper.
I first saw the connection between high performance and peer accountability years ago when consulting with a successful financial services company. It had an unparalleled return on capital, breathtaking sales growth and the highest customer renewal rate in the industry.
I attended a meeting with the CEO, Paul, and his direct reports. It was the first time I had a chance to meet the team face-to-face, including Paul. And to my embarrassment, the meeting was halfway through before I realized I was calling the wrong guy “Paul.”
It was an innocent mistake. As the meeting started, one key member rolled in six minutes late. The guy sitting at the head of the table (who I later learned was named Frank) looked the tardy teammate in the eye and said, “We all agreed to be here at 10 a.m. — what happened?” It was a jarring moment. The latecomer flushed red, stammered an explanation, and the meeting moved on. I assumed the guy sitting at the head of the table who held the tardy executive accountable must be Paul — clearly, he was demonstrating the skills and demeanor of a CEO.
Ten minutes later, Lydia was reporting on sales in her business unit and things were not going well. The woman next to me asked most of the hard questions about Lydia’s disappointing performance. Her comments were thoughtful and constructive but firm. She concluded by suggesting they reconsider how much capital they were deploying in Lydia’s business unit that year. Clearly, this woman wasn’t Paul, but I had to wonder if maybe she was really the person in charge.
Thankfully, I kept my mouth shut rather than revealing my faulty assumptions. It turned out Paul was the quietest guy in the room. I could have spent the entire meeting playing “Who’s Paul?” and gotten it wrong every time.
As we studied teams like Paul’s and many others, we arrived at some breakthrough findings around team performance:
- In the weakest teams, there is no accountability.
- In mediocre teams, bosses are the source of accountability.
- In high-performance teams, peers manage the vast majority of performance problems with one another.
Paul didn’t have to monitor latecomers or ask Lydia hard questions because he had created a culture of universal accountability. The basic principle was that anyone should be able to hold anyone accountable if it was in the best interest of the team. Team members were both motivated and able to handle their day-to-day concerns with one another, with him or with anyone outside the team.
You can approximate the health of a relationship, a team and an organization by measuring the average lag time between identifying and discussing problems. The shorter the lag time, the faster problems get solved and the more the resolution enhances relationships. The longer the lag, the more room there is for mistrust, dysfunction and tangible costs. The role of a leader is to shrink this gap. And the best way to do it is by developing a culture of universal accountability.
Here are some ways managers can create this kind of norm:
- Set expectations. Sit down with an existing team and establish expectations that let them know you want and expect them to hold you and others accountable. As new team members join, make sure these expectations are shared up front.
- Tell stories. Call out positive examples of team members addressing accountability concerns, especially when they take a big risk by holding you accountable. Vicarious learning is a powerful form of influence and storytelling is the best way to make it happen.
- Model it. As the leader, be vigilant in your practice of accountability. The first time your team hears you gripe about your own peers to others — rather than confronting your concerns directly — you lose moral authority to expect the same from them.
- Teach it. The best leaders are teachers. Codify the skills you think are important for holding people accountable and take five to 10 minutes in a staff meeting to teach one. In these teaching episodes, ensure the team practices on a real-life and recent example. They’ll complain, but this will make a huge difference in retention and transference to real life.
- Set an “it takes two to escalate” policy. In other words, escalating peers need to agree they can’t resolve the issue at their level before they bring it to you together.
The role of a leader is not to settle problems or constantly monitor their team. Rather, leaders should create and enable a culture of accountability where people address concerns immediately, directly and respectfully with each other — no matter the other persons’ power, position or authority.
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