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Creating a culture of accountability in a team is all about learning how to balance control & trust. Being too controlling can kill motivation. When people are constantly being checked on or asked when they’re going to get things done, they become defensive. Imposed accountability doesn’t leave room for self-motivation. In fact, constantly checking in on a co-worker can demotivate and annihilate the individual desire to perform.

True accountability is the sense of action that comes from within, that ownership of the task and of the consequences of success and failure. Responsibility is imposed. It’s being told what to do. Through imposing responsibility on a team, there is a risk of dis-empowering them to step into full accountability. Therefore, managers must look for ways to light that fire, to encourage people to self-motivate, to become accountable for the work they have to complete.
In a team, every colleague must be fully aware of what they are being held accountable for, what they’re responsible for. It doesn’t mean that managers should let them do what they want whenever they want, but it’s important to let colleagues communicate on their hurdles or their progress. This means that they must have the freedom to get their work done in the way that suits them or serves them best. It also means that they’re free to come to their manager for help and assistance. By striking that balance between control and trust, managers will see their team become more accountable to get the work done.

Setting a common understanding of accountability

An important step to boost team collaboration is to find a common definition of accountability, since it can often mean different things for different people. This is why it’s so important to get together as a team and have everyone discuss what accountability means for them, and then to create a shared definition among the team. Doing so will let everyone know what to expect from others and how they can work together more effectively and more productively. When having this discussion between colleagues, it can be useful to start by identifying what accountability is not. It’s not finger-pointing, it’s not placing blame (for more on this topic, check our article on personal accountability). Then, comes the time to identify as a team what accountability is. A good definition of accountability can be “Accountability is when we do what we said we were going to do, in the time that we promised, and we ask for help when we need it”.

Being accountable is a collective matter

When individualism is too strong in a team, there is no accountability. However, such a behavior is often observed in teams: each employee works towards their own goals, sometimes leaving other colleagues deal with their own workload without offering to help. This is why it’s key for team members to understand that everyone is involved in making projects happen. Part of being accountable collectively means going beyond a job description and helping out a colleague in need. It’s important to look at the global mission of the team, of the department, of the organization. Managers must teach their team to help out struggling colleagues by looking for ways to share responsibility. This will create a team that’s more accountable, not just to the work that needs to be done but to the global mission.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that accountability is not about blaming others. Team members should learn to avoid finger-pointing when things don’t work out as planned, and managers must lead the way in demonstrating this behavior. Accountability is about working together. It is about getting the right things done as a group. Together, it’s possible to reach even higher levels of performance.