Accountability a Sticky Subject for Teams 

by Marsha Willard and Darcy Hitchcock



Accountability a Sticky Subject for Teams


Thousands of organizations are eagerly creating empowered work teams in an effort to boost productivity, enhance quality and bolster employee morale. As more and more organizations move closer to full empowerment, however, they hit an obstacle that is becoming self-direction's most burning issue. Sure, you can hand-off management responsibilities and vest teams with the authority to act, but aren't managers really still accountable? How can you hold a whole team accountable when something goes wrong? Won't we end up just pointing fingers at everyone else when a mistake occurs? Creating an environment where accountability is clear and fully accepted is a subtle and complex task.

Accountability Defined
Accountability means having the responsibility and authority to act and fully accept the natural and logical consequences for the results of those actions.

In a team-based organization, accountability is focused at the team rather than the individual level. This means that the members of the team feel mutually accountable to each other and that the team as a whole, not any one or two individuals within it, accepts accountability for the results of the team's actions.

Accountability is one of three critical components to effective empowerment. Think of empowerment as supported by a tripod. The three legs of the tripod are responsibility, authority, and accountability. Every new task that is handed off to a team needs to be transferred with this balance in mind.

The balance is achieved when a team has 1. a clear understanding of its responsibilities, 2. the authority necessary to fulfill these responsibilities, and 3. the accountability for the consequences of their outcomes.

Why is Accountability So Important?
Accountability is an odd thing. Many workers do their best to avoid it because it has often been used as ammunition for blame or punishment. The truth is that accountability is unavoidable. In the workplace everyone is accountable to someone. In a traditional organization workers are individually accountable to their respective bosses. In a high performance organization team members are individually accountable to each other and mutually accountable to their customers. But rather than a negative force, research indicates that holding people accountable for their results has very positive effects: greater accuracy of work, better response to role obligations, more vigilant problem solving, better decision making, more cooperation with co-workers, and higher team satisfaction. (For additional information on this kind of motivation, see Why Self-Direction Works: A Review of Herzberg's Concepts).

Hold a Team Accountable?
The paradigm of individual accountability is so strong in our organizational cultures that the notion of holding a whole team accountable for its collective outputs boggles corporate minds. But is it really so hard? Sorting out the contributions of an individual can be a tricky task. How can I tell what you part in the product was? Where a team produces a whole piece of work, output is much easier to assess.

And what should we care, after all, what part each individual played in making it happen? If your dry cleaner ruins one of your suits, do you hunt down the worker who did the damage? No, you hold the business accountable for making the situation right. You don't care who made the mistake or even who will fix it, just as long as the problem is resolved. So it should be with your teams. Truly empowered teams have the authority to carry out their responsibilities as well as the accountability for collectively fixing things when they go wrong.

Systems for Team Accountability
To be effective at fostering team accountability and ownership, an organization's systems must be designed with three basic principles in mind: focus, influence, and consequences.

FOCUS - Systems for accountability begin with a clear focus and expectations. In a team setting, teams need to share a clear mission statement that links directly to the organization's vision. Building on that mission statement a team should identify its collective outputs and devise systems for measuring their success at efficiently delivering quality products or services. Within the team, each member should be clear of his or her roles and responsibilities including agreements on individual expectations and standards of excellence.

Strategies for ensuring focus:

  • Clearly communicate and continually reinforce the organization's mission and vision.
  • Require teams to explicitly describe their purpose and outputs that link to the organization's vision.
  • Assure that teams complete a whole piece of work.
  • Have teams explicitly define each member's role and responsibilities.
  • Have teams establish clear standards of excellence for members.
  • Have teams track and analyze their own performance data.
  • Encourage teams to conduct regular business planning sessions.

INFLUENCE - Teams will also need to be able to influence the operations of these systems. This means they need to be given as much authority as is reasonable to determine how they achieve the outcomes they have committed to. As Stephen Covey says, "You can't hold people accountable for results if you manage their methods."

Similarly, team members need to have influence over those with whom they are interdependent. Holding teams jointly accountable for their combined results will only work if the people within the team can influence each other's behavior. Ideally this implies team members have what we call "gate control" or control over who joins the team and who stays on the team. At the very least, systems need to be devised such that a team member's feedback carries as much weight as a manager's feedback. This can be affected by instituting a team review process or at least by redesigning your performance appraisal system to include input from customers and teammates.

Strategies for ensuring influence:

  • Allow employees to participate in the shaping of the organization's mission and vision.
  • Teach teams to use performance feedback as the basis for meeting and problem solving sessions.
  • Encourage teams to analyze work practices for improvement.
  • Allow teams to act on their improvement ideas.
  • Give teams choice of vendors.
  • Give teams budget authority.
  • Ensure that team members regularly give feedback to one another.
  • Empower teams to select new members.
  • Empower teams to remove non-performers.

CONSEQUENCES - Lastly, an organization's systems need to close the loop by connecting real consequences to a team's actions. Too often managers shield teams from the consequences of what they do. They field complaints from customers or run interference with other departments. If a team is to be held accountable, then they must handle the results of their own actions together. This usually means putting teams in regular contact with their customers, and linking at least a portion of their compensation with their cumulative efforts. (For more information on compensation, see Team Based Incentives - Do They Work?) It also means the whole team is held accountable for the performance of each member. In a team based organization, coaching and correcting individual performance problems is as much a team responsibility as a management responsibility.

Strategies for ensuring consequences:

  • Ensure that tems get direct and regular feedback from customers.
  • Let teams carry over savings in their budgets.
  • Abolish internal monopolies.
  • Tie rewards and compensation to team output.
  • Allow teams to share in the financial success of the organization.
A Culture of Team Accountability

While less easy to identify, an organization's culture is just as powerful as its systems in determining how much accountability people will accept. While changing an organization's culture is more difficult than tinkering with its systems, changing the systems without addressing the cultural aspects could be a waste of time.

Creating a culture of accountability means developing a climate in which people can speak openly, admit to mistakes without fear, and worry more about serving the customer than looking better than a co-worker. As indicated in the table, there are several cultural dimensions that can contribute to or discourage accountability.

The biggest fear people have about accountability is that they will be punished for their actions. Savvy organizations realize that blaming people for events that have already occurred does more harm than good. It tends to make people secretive about their actions and competitive with their co-workers. Workers end up looking out for "number one" more than for the success of the organization.

In successfully accountable organizations, mistakes are celebrated as learning opportunities. The focus is shifted from finger pointing to jointly figuring out how things should be done differently in the future. One team we encountered began each of its weekly team meetings with a celebration of the week's biggest screw-up. This technique not only effectively surfaced problems and got them solved, it virtually drove fear out of the workplace.

Changing from a culture of blame to one of honest and trusting problem solving usually boils down to the way each of us behaves with each other. Use the list of strategies below to help your leaders and teammates foster a culture of shared accountability.

  • Earn the trust of your co-workers. This means doing what you say and saying what you mean all the time.
  • Publicly own up to your own mistakes and accept the natural consequences for them.
  • When mistakes or problems occur, focus on the future. To correct the problem and prevent it from happening again, steer the discussion to what needs to be done next and away from what was done.
  • Remember that intent is not the same as performance. Help people follow through on their commitments by regularly checking in on progress. This needn't take on a "Big Brother" air. Simply make old business or ongoing projects a regular agenda item and ask people to share their current status, successes, and need for help.
  • Be explicit about accountability and expectations. Talk openly (and preferably face-to-face) about responsibilities, performance standards, deadlines, potential consequences or implications of their actions, etc.
  • Be supportive. Help people talk about their progress on their commitments, and offer help when they are stuck or unsure.

 


Marsha Willard and Darcy Hitchcock
Darcy Hitchcock and Marsha Willard are the founders of AXIS Performance Advisors, a consulting firm that has been in business since 1990. They apply their management consulting, training and facilitation skills to help organizations find responsible solutions that meet all stakeholder needs: for owners, customers, employees, the community and the environment. They have co-authored six popular business books on such topics as teamwork, trust, work redesign and quality. Their most recent is The Business Guide to Sustainability (Earthscan 2006). They are recognized experts in the implementation of sustainability, what some are calling the next industrial revolution. Their Sustainability SeriesTM booklets show organizations how to simultaneously improve their financial, social and environmental performance. They also run the Sustainability Seminars and Tours program for Sustainable Northwest and are associates with the Zero Waste Alliance.


1. Excerpted by permission from "The Accountability Hot Potato" by Darcy Hitchcock and Marsha Willard.