Accountability On Great Leadership Teams

All leaders say they want accountability, but actually getting it embedded in the culture isn't as easy as it looks.

In his HBR article entitled “The Best Teams Hold Themselves Accountable,” Joseph Grenny suggests that the worst teams have no accountability, mediocre teams rely on the boss for accountability, and the best teams hold themselves accountable. Teams without accountability churn on the same problems with no resolution and tolerate unproductive behavior like pointing fingers and throwing blame around. Additionally, teammates who don’t feel responsible have nothing motivating them to perform at a high level.

Ultimately, when one or more team members aren’t accountable, it negatively affects the whole team. Teams that rely on the boss to hold them accountable struggle to scale as too much weight is put on the shoulders of the boss. Perhaps more alarming than any of these struggles is the downstream impact that inadequate accountability can have on the rest of the organization. A study by AON highlights this challenge as it suggests that “everyone in the organization is watching” to see how leaders hold each other accountable.

In recent years a great deal has been written about accountability and creating cultures of accountability. But just what is accountability? On some leadership teams the word accountability has a mostly punitive connotation and can be a source of shame and negative criticism. Reactive phrases like “if we are going to get out of this hole, we need to hold people more accountable” emanate and rather than “lighting a fire” in people, they come across as condescending and deflating. Other leadership teams view accountability as a structural or administrative issue and rely on accountability charts and performance metrics to drive results and help determine rewards or punishments. The phrase “what gets measured, gets done” is prevalent on these teams and, while well-intentioned, this type of approach usually falls short of instilling true accountability.

True accountability on a leadership team is a personal value shared by all team members that goes beyond doing a job or achieving metrics. True leadership team accountability is a commitment to the team that each team member will do what they say, accept responsibility for their actions and outcomes, and proactively and constructively help each other live up to their commitments. Great leadership teams evolve into ones where individuals feel accountable to the team, the leader serves more as a coach than the primary source of accountability, and the team becomes competent at holding itself accountable. This optimal leadership team accountability construct is extremely difficult to establish and requires nurturing, commitment and patience on the part of each team member.

Making Accountability Durable

Many leadership teams value team accountability but only a select few actually practice it. The pace and stresses of leading any organization put pressure on relationships which are critical for maintaining team accountability. Under stress it is often easier to fall back on the CEO or to point fingers at colleagues than to take responsibility or confront teammates. The good news is that the journey to move leadership teams towards team accountability can take teams quite far. That journey relies on a few important elements that build on many concepts covered in the previous chapters including modeling, managing expectations, clarifying structure, and giving/receiving feedback.

• Modeling Accountability. One of a CEO’s most important jobs is to create and enable an environment where their teams can thrive and paramount to this is modeling accountability. CEOs must take responsibility for their actions and admit when they make mistakes. They must work hard to not let their position authority get in the way and avoid deflecting, shifting blame, or moving the goal posts. CEOs must also model receiving feedback with curiosity and a genuine desire to understand and provide feedback with a focus on helping individuals learn and grow. CEOs also need to clarify that their role does not exist to settle problems or constantly monitor the team; rather focus is on creating an environment where teammates help each other and address concerns immediately, directly, and respectfully.

• Managing Expectations. At its foundation accountability requires discussion and agreement on mutual expectations; assuming expectations are clear without discussion is a recipe for disaster (see sidebar on Making the Implicit Explicit). The CEO must make it clear that not only is it okay for teammates to hold each other accountable, but it is also part of the job of a good leadership team member. The team needs to shift the often-negative connotations of accountability and begin to view it as a vehicle for helping the team and each individual make progress and get better. The team also needs to discuss their basic expectations for each other as team members. A good starting place for this discussion are leadership team member characteristics such as: Do we act with curiosity? What does it look like to have a greater good focus? What does it mean to manage complexity well? How does a team member demonstrate their foresight skills? How does a team live their core values? Great things can happen when team members encourage and challenge each other to further develop these important skills.

• Clarifying Structure. As described thus far, accountability is mostly about mindset and behaviors but there are certainly structural factors that enable effective accountability. One very important structural element is the practice of assigning responsibilities, scope, and time frames for important initiatives. It might sound silly, but we have seen too many leadership teams churn on the same issues over and over by failing to assign responsibility for key initiatives, not taking time to clarify scope and expected outcomes, and neglecting to determine key milestones and end dates. Another structural factor that can greatly enable accountability is incorporating progress reviews into a leadership team’s cadence. By itself this simple tool shines the spotlight on a team’s expectation for progress to be made and lessons to be learned.

• Giving and Receiving Feedback. One of the most widely accepted principles in psychology is the positive effect that feedback has on performance. Despite this convincing principle, experience suggests that one of the most challenging aspects of building a great leadership team is the inability of team members to give and receive feedback well. Without feedback, accountability is virtually impossible. Leadership teams that take the time to build trust and create an environment of psychological safety are much more adept at feedback as teammates are less likely to feel judged and more likely to recognize good intent.

Leadership teams further enable accountability by discussing and practicing principles for giving and receiving feedback. There are three important principles for giving effective feedback. Start by recognizing and being receptive to the fact that your feedback could be wrong or inaccurate. Next, be respectful and use constructive language and tone to deliver feedback so that you are much more likely to be heard. Finally, focus more on what you are hearing than what you are saying.

There are also three principles for receiving feedback. First, demonstrate in your tone and body language that you are listening by hearing what is being said and not thinking about how you are going to respond. Next, maintain a sense of curiosity when receiving feedback, even if you believe the feedback is wrong or confusing. Phrases like “tell me more” can be magical as they demonstrate your openness to hearing another perspective. Finally, be appreciative and thank others for taking the time to provide their perspective.


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