A blueprint for encouraging accountability in your people.
By Sean Glaze
Accountability is far from an inspiring topic. It is a word we hear and know is good for us, but like going to the dentist for a root canal, we often assume it will be uncomfortable at best. Just the mention of it makes both managers and their empoyees cringe with a painful dread of yet another job evaluation or assessment that threatens to steal time and energy from what should be the productive contributions they were hired to provide.
Still, despite the negative connotations people have adopted from past lectures or myths about the topic, inspiring accountability remains one of the key requirements of a leader intent on improving morale, cohesiveness, and productivity.
Productivity in your office or organization is affected tremendously by the willingness of your people to buy into the corporate mission and build quality relationships with those they depend on to do their jobs. Whether as a middle manager, business owner, or leader in any organization, if a group is not working up to its potential, individual and peer accountability are necessary ingredients that can supercharge the group’s efficiency and enthusiasm.
Athletic teams have served our culture as a warehouse for significant life-long lessons of shared vision, effort, mental toughness, skill improvement, and the importance of accountability. As a high school coach, the nearly 20 years of experience I have enjoyed in locker rooms and around individuals who swore allegiance to a shared purpose have provided leadership wisdom that can be applied to more than just athletic teams.
Any group that depends upon one another to accomplish a worthy and challenging goal will, at some point, either greet or avoid the conflicting emotions involved in the issue of accountability, and wise leaders will recognize the lessons provided herein as a blueprint to not only address, but to positively enable and encourage both individual and peer accountability throughout their organization. When individuals claim a more active and significant role as part of something larger than themselves, they “own” more—and when accountability improves, so does morale and productivity.
So how do you respond when your people see trash on the floor but keep walking past it, when they blame their coworkers for a mishandled group project, or when they refuse to take responsibility for a missed deadline?
As a coach, my experience has taught me that when problems like these occur, it is often because the organization’s leadership has failed to create a culture of accountability. The truth is that you can lead your horses to the Accountability Kool-Aid, but you can’t force them to drink it. Your job as a leader is to create an organizational environment where it is encouraged, and great leaders, great programs, and great organizations all adopt some form of the following blueprint for encouraging accountability in their people—and success is a symptom it always produces.
Adopt a Shared Vision
The first step in creating a team that will hold itself accountable is to ensure that each member is interested in getting to the same destination. Individuals who adopt a shared vision of where they want to go, and have a motivating reason why, are far more likely to invest themselves wholly in the group’s success.
As a coach, this step normally involves discussing with our players in the off-season where they want to end up in terms of wins/losses or state tournament success. For a business team, the team’s goals may be as varied as completing a review by a certain date or creating and developing a new idea or product. In every case, this step is crucial—because, as a leader, it is our job to make it clear how reaching that destination will benefit each individual.
Commit to Each Other Incrementally
Once a destination has been identified and team members have reason to care about reaching that destination because it serves a significant role in bettering their circumstances, a wise leader will encourage or manufacture situations where these team members can build trust by making small promises and keeping them. Everyone wants to be seen as trustworthy, and when we make and keep small promises, the larger commitments that soon follow are easier to keep, as well—because we have created an expectation on both parts of dependability. When teammates commit to each other incrementally, it provides positive inertia and creates trust that will be important as they begin to focus on their individual role and increase their faith in the abilities and integrity of their teammates.
According to Katzenbach and Smith, in their 1993 study, “The Wisdom of Teams,” “Team accountability is about sincere promises we make to others and ourselves on which commitment, trust, and constructive listening develops.” On a basketball team, our players constantly are asked to lean on each other—whether by being placed in physically demanding situations where each must pull his own weight, by assigning study partners who must run with their teammate for any unacceptable grades, or any number of other activities where we as coaches can place them in a spot where a peer accountability contract can be strengthened. In an office setting, it may be something like having one pair responsible for bringing in different items for a group breakfast. It is important to keep the contract simple, though, and with each incremental meeting of expectations, a stronger web of trust is formed with their peers.
Claim the Power of Responsibility
Next, a leader will emphasize the organization’s culture of ownership. We must as leaders make it clear that on great teams people will either fail or succeed together. The culture of a successful organization is one where each individual takes responsibility for the results produced, and the second step of creating an accountable team is to claim the power of responsibility, for whatever happens will become a reflection of their individual skills and work ethic.
In life, we either define ourselves as captains of our fate or as victims. We claim personal accountability when we realize that nobody owes us anything and the burden of success rests on our own shoulders. Only then can we grow to claim influence over the actions of others. By claiming responsibility for what occurs and how things are done at every point in the process, each individual also claims the power to affect those results. Leadership is not a position; it is a mind-set that is amplified by an individual’s passion and willingness to claim responsibility. Before an individual asks how this can happen when some things that occur on the team are “out of his/her control,” remind him or her that each team member has the power to influence his/her teammates—and it is a power we all can claim when we realize that others’ actions are significantly affected by our attitudes, expectations, and comments.
On the basketball court, this is illustrated by players who, once assimilated into our culture, become leaders regardless of class by recognizing that they depend upon the preparation and skills of their teammates to succeed, and, therefore, do everything they can to ensure their individual success by keeping tabs on other players and their behaviors. Businesses may find this a challenging notion, but it remains true that when a team is forced to succeed or fail together, the team members will either isolate themselves as victims or will invest more attention in the work quality of their teammates. When that attention is given, the individual has claimed the power of responsibility to influence others’ contributions, and enjoys the power and status of a more empowered worker.
But as a team member, it is important that each teammate also knows how to communicate with others on the team, for sometimes the most passionate and demanding teammates are seen as annoying, overbearing, or just plain rude rather than helpful. While leaders must continue to stress the importance of every teammate owning the team’s productivity as their own, it is equally important to help define and manage how that influence is exhibited among their peers.
Encourage with Reminders
Taking responsibility for others’ productivity is a giant step, but communicating it clearly is a skill. Learning to encourage with reminders is by far the best and most positive way to influence the actions of teammates. It is rarely productive to point out blame for past mistakes, but it can be empowering and influential to provide reminders. For example, instead of saying, “Why didn’t you rebound that last shot?” it is far more helpful to enthusiastically remind a teammate to “make sure you block out this time—we really need this next rebound!”
In business, this easily can be adapted to your specific situation—just be sure to focus your attention on what is about to occur and what needs to happen (the things that are still within your control) instead of staring into the rearview mirror and addressing a pothole or past incident you cannot change. Employees, much like players, often will focus on what you emphasize as a leader. We need to keep our focus and attention on the nextplay, and not let the negative feelings or effects of a previous event keep us from moving forward successfully. Past mistakes provide lessons that can help make better decisions in the future, but only if we think “next play,” and keep our comments and eyes focused on events that can be affected.
Publish Standards and Progress
Keeping the team’s focus on positive results is a leader’s job—and in addition to creating an environment of vision, trust, and encouragement, it is important that we announce and make clear the expected actions that will produce the results we desire. In basketball, that may be a certain team free throw percentage made or the number of offensive rebounds allowed. Whatever the expected statistic that is important to your situation, you must measure and then publish the daily activities of those on your team to promote both commitment and competition.
Find a prominent place to post it, and hang a poster where your most relevant two or three measurable activities can be publicized. Outside our locker room is a poster for total free throws, turnovers, and rebounds. Every day our players see these statistics updated with numbers from our practices, and it is a daily reminder of where they stand in relation to their teammates—in addition to what we post as a standard of successful performance. We publish standards and progress throughout the season, and the players soon learn that those who compete and invest time in practicing hard are usually the ones who perform best and play most in games.
These are not products (wins), but are process numbers (100 shots each day). It is the same in your organization. Find two or three measurable actions (calls or client contacts) that must be done well for your team to be successful, and then advertise the daily (or weekly) activities for all to see. Numbers do not lie—and those who are willing to take care of fundamentals are often the most successful performers when it matters most.
Finally, even with an established environment where accountability and ownership of results is encouraged, and where trust and “thinking next play” are demonstrated, there will be issues that arise and must be addressed. The thing to remember when dealing with an issue is to always attack the problem, not the person. We care about and build up our players, but will not hesitate to passionately point out a lack of effort, display of poor attitude, or flawed technique that needs to be corrected.
Tackle Issues Together
People are an asset. Problems must be addressed. A leader’s job is to demand that the problem is resolved—and that the person still feels valued. When a leader or teammate insists on trying to tackle issues together, it is yet another chance to revisit each of the previous points we’ve touched upon. If the individual is intent on achieving the shared vision of success, and has committed to keep his/her promises to peers, any attempt to help improve personal productivity likely will be appreciated. Defensiveness or hurt feelings only enter the equation when someone feels personally attacked—but if approached as a ally to assist with overcoming an obstacle, it is often another opportunity for building relationships, morale, and trust.
Despite its vague or even negative connotations, accountability is a powerful decision made easier by the organization’s culture and atmosphere. It is established when teammates agree on roles, and those expectations are published and measured regularly. This demands that team members recognize the tremendous power of peer pressure and their responsibility to engage in positive conflict to resolve issues when teammates are not meeting those published standards.
Whether in a locker room or office setting, a quality leader can have a huge influence on inspiring accountability in his/her people by creating an environment where it is valued and encouraged. When your people are led through and witness the impact of these steps, the positive results you desire will follow without fail.
Sean Glaze is an enthusiastic and impactful coach, speaker, and teambuilding facilitator who has written articles and led training events for Teambuilding, Mental Toughness, and Building a Bridge to Your Goals. As a veteran head basketball coach, he has proven his ability to turn struggling programs around from mediocrity to playoff contenders. Glaze’s teaching and coaching experiences provide a unique insight into individual and team development, and he offers speaking engagements, workshop training, and teambuilding event to improve schools, businesses, and athletic teams. For more information, visit www.greatresultsteambuilding.com.