Accountable Teams: The Myth, The Legend

Super Hero Team

“When a leader effectively holds the team accountable—he or she reduces cost overruns by 64 percent, reduces schedule delays by 60 percent, and improves quality and functionality by 66 percent.” (Kerry Patterson, Psychology Today)

I love teams.  I love all the potential — the array of skills and ideas, the magic that happens when team members combine their powers for good, the spandex suits … Ok, maybe that last one is just for The Avengers; but the rest of it still stands.  Teams enable us to do more than we would do alone, or as Aristotle put it:

 “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Ironically, even though teams are the key to taking our businesses further, they are also one of the things managers (at all levels) complain about the most.  Specifically, managers complain about the difficulty of creating accountable teams.

Over the last two years, the Internet has exploded with articles, presentations and consulting services that talk about accountable teams in all flavors (highly accountable, mutually accountable, etc.)  They are built, managed, empowered and “unleashed.”

I’m not sure who invented the concept of accountable teams, but I can understand the appeal.  As a manager, you might direct a team to get something done only to be disappointed when they do not yield the expected results; and if your boss is holding YOU accountable, you want the ability to hold someone else accountable, right?

“If your goal in fostering accountability is to know who to punish when revenue targets are not met or budgets are missed, you will only succeed in creating fear.” (Henry Browning, Forbes)

But can you hold a team of people accountable?  Does that mean that, if they fail to hit their mark, you hold all of them equally accountable? Are they all fired?  Or do you mean to give them the authority to hold each other accountable?  Does that mean the team can decide to fire someone who is underperforming? (And what kind of HR nightmares would THAT create?)  What exactly makes a team ACCOUNTABLE? We talk about group ownership, but is that really group consequences? Group authority?

“Accountability starts at the beginning of the performance process. If we wait until the end, then we are simply imposing consequences rather than creating ownership.” (Lee Colan, Inc.)

You will find that most of the articles give you the same sound, basic team advice:

  1. Set expectations upfront about goals and consequences.
  2. Make sure individuals take ownership, make commitments.
  3. Empower the team members to do what they need to do.
  4. Hold the individual members accountable for meeting their commitments to the team.

Notice how many of those bits of advice are actually related to individual team members, not the team as a whole.  The truth is: teams aren’t accountable, people are.  If you think there is a magical way to make a team full of people accountable, that’s a myth.  You have to make each person on the team accountable.

Now, it is possible — even desirable — to hold individual members accountable in a group setting: to expect the team members to call each other out and to give the group the authority to manage an underperforming teammate.  Teams that function this way have a high level of trust and a universal openness to criticism.  These are the teams of legend, and they only exist in cultures where failure is embraced as a learning opportunity, and individual team members feel secure even when they are not performing well; or as Eric Coryell put it, you must have “… a higher level of adulthood in your organization.”  Without the right cultural setting, the team collaboration you hope for will turn into accountability collusion, with team members mutually ignoring (or even covering for) each other’s failures, and then you won’t be able to hold anyone accountable.

If you are truly interested in establishing accountable teams in your organization, you need to ask yourself some important questions:

  • What does accountable mean to you?
  • What expectations do you have for the team’s performance?
  • What authority are you willing to give them?
  • What is the maturity level of your organization?
  • What are you willing to do to bring a deeper sense of trust and ownership to your team members?

Will you be building a myth or a legend?

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