The idea of team accountability is important, but often misunderstood. Many organizations struggle to hold people accountable. Leaders must have a good understanding of accountability to be an effective leader.
Gone are the days of rewards and punishments to drive team accountability. When most leaders discuss “holding people accountable,” they usually mean terminating low performers or punishing them in some other way. Accountability, by this definition, does not work. Instead, it becomes a recipe for turnover and disengagement.
When Accountability is Confused with Punishment
When I speak with leaders, especially leaders in middle management, there is frequent frustration around team accountability. What they tend to talk about as we unpack accountability is dissatisfaction about politics, treatment, and behaviors. Other leaders want to tie accountability to performance, similar to how General Electric CEO Jack Welsh used “Stack rankings” in the 1980s. In this model, the bottom 10% of performers would be fired at years’ end.
Tying team accountability only to outcomes is problematic because it discourages appropriate risk-taking. In addition, even high performers miss targets for legitimate reasons. While there needs to be recognition that the person did not meet their goals, punishing them is usually unwarranted. Tactics like “Stack rankings” are ineffective due to their short term orientation and punitive nature. “Stack rankings” only served to create a cut-throat and disengaged culture.
So that brings us back to the middle manager definition of team accountability. What they refer to when they describe a lack of accountability is witnessing inconsistent treatment based on favoritism, rude behavior, or a lack of performance among their peers with no obvious consequences. Using that as a starting point helps us to better understand how effective leaders understand team accountability.
Working-Definition of Team Accountability
With these leaders in mind, my personal working definition of team accountability involves two aspects: Empowerment and Transparency.
An organization cannot have accountability without empowerment. If leaders are not able to creatively and uniquely develop strategies and tactics to achieve their goals, accountability is not possible. There must be space for leaders to maneuver in an organization. This means that senior leaders need to set clear performance goals and expectations for behavioral standards that all team-members must follow. Leaders should have plenty of room to achieve their goals within those well-defined boundaries without being micromanaged. Creating a clear boundary like this simultaneously encourages mid-level leaders to think more like owners of their book of business, rather than managers executing someone else’s playbook.
Effective leaders use transparency as the other powerful tool in creating a sense of team accountability. By publishing relevant data regularly, it becomes abundantly clear who is high performing and who is not. In these instances, the healthiest cultures will see high performing leaders helping lower performing leaders. Further, the leaders who are struggling are aware of it and are given additional help and support.
When empowerment and transparency occur together, there is rarely a need for punishment. Everyone in the organization understands the expectations and whether they and their teams are meeting those expectations. In these cases, the conversations around accountability almost disappear. This is because often these organizations are achieving their goals and because the organization’s expectations around performance and behavior are communicated openly and repeatedly.
Using Accountability in your Leadership Practice
When a leader defines accountability as the sum of empowerment and transparency, they can achieve incredible results. I know this from personal experience. I once inherited a team that was low performing and high-drama, often asking for accountability for other team members. When we introduced clear boundaries for empowerment and transparent weekly data reporting, we never heard about accountability again.
The desire for accountability is usually a symptom of under-defined expectations and a lack of transparency. Using this model, leaders can have an immediate impact of getting the team focused on what matters most: Driving results and growing the organization in a way that supports and empowers the employees of that organization.
Team accountability is the sum of a culture that has empowerment and transparency. Clearly defined goals and behavioral expectations, coupled with transparent reporting, help to create clarity and focus on results.
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