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The Difference-Maker: Accountability

Posted by Deb Cullerton on 3/10/15 10:51 AM

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Over the 20 years that we've worked with both dysfunctional and highly functional teams, my colleagues and I have seen a key behavior surface as a difference-maker consistently.  Accountability.

Unfortunately,  it has become another buzzword, overused and with so many different interpretations that it has lost much of its meaning. According to Patrick Lencioni, author of the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, “When it comes to teamwork, accountability means the willingness of members to remind one another when they’re not living up to performance standards and results.” 

Teams that Avoid Accountability

The usual source of dysfunction in this area is the unwillingness of team members to accept the discomfort that goes with “calling out” a peer on his or her behavior. Teams that have trouble having difficult conversations will also likely avoid holding one another accountable.  Teams that avoid this:

  • Miss deadlines and key deliverables
  • Experience broken agreements
  • Allow misunderstandings to fester
  • Wait for the leader to be the source of all feedback

As uncomfortable and difficult as it can be, accountable behaviors helps a team and an organization avoid far more costly and difficult situations later. Perhaps the most important challenge of building a high-performing, cohesive team is overcoming the reluctance of individuals to give one another critical feedback. One way to overcome this reluctance is to help people realize that failing to provide peers with constructive feedback means that they are letting them down. By holding back, we hurt not only the team, but also our teammates. 


Teams that Embrace Feedback and Accountabilty

In addition to team trust and comfort with conflict, a third important ingredient to establishing accountability-based behaviors within a team is commitment. When everyone is committed to the team’s priorities and to a clear plan of action, they will be more willing to hold one another accountable. Teams that embrace this:

  • Ensure that poor performers feel pressure to improve
  • Identify potential problems and obstacles quickly
  • Establish respect among members who are held to the same high standards
  • Avoid excessive bureaucracy around performance management

Even as people try to move from dysfunctional teams to cohesive teams, they find themselves struggling to determine if it might just be their own high standards shaping their perceptions.  The key to making accountability part of a team’s culture is for team leaders to clearly identify the goals and standards.  As Lencioni says, "The enemy of accountability is ambiguity".

*Based on Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. “The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team” is a trademark of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. PMA is an authorized partner of Wiley Publishers.  

Topics: All About Teams, Leadership Matters

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