I have a question for you. How important is accountability in a team? Assuming you answered something along the lines of “very important,” the next question is imperative.  How much training have you received on how to hold someone accountable? If you are like the majority of those I have worked with, your answer is most likely “very little” or “none at all.” These two questions have been instrumental in how I have approached the topic of accountability within teams.

Before diving into the process of implementing accountability, there are a few items to address. First, holding someone accountable is a good thing. Many people view holding someone accountable as a negative. Similar to having difficult conversations, many people don’t enjoy the idea of accountability discussions due to negative past experiences. They worry about how the other person will respond, or they lack confidence in knowing that having the discussion is the right decision.

To better understand this, let’s examine three viewpoints that influence how we work with accountability. I like to call them “leveraging our viewpoints,” and I feel this concept is at the foundation of any accountability discussion. These viewpoints include our:

  • Assumptions: things that we believe to be true — even without facts to support our views or opinions
  • Perceptions: an intuitive understanding of situations
  • Expectations: a strong belief that something will happen

Let’s specifically focus on perception and accountability. We all perceive experiences differently, as they are unique to each individual. Knowing this, let’s look at two possible workplace situations:

  • You are in a meeting with your team, and your supervisor is detailing a change process your team will be leading. While listening and reviewing the detailed plans, you find yourself informed and ready to move onto the next steps. However, you notice that one of your peers is becoming increasingly resistant and frustrated by the proposed change.
  • You are meeting with your supervisor and he or she tells you that an additional person will be joining your project team to help move the project along. You become defensive and are bothered that your supervisor made this decision without consulting you first.

Each of these examples has a negative impact on someone in the scenario. Why? Because perception has caused us to take what could be a normal situation and turn it into a negative one. However, there could be a variety of reasons for having a negative reaction to these scenarios.

When thinking about your peer who appears to be upset about the change, consider the following possibilities. Maybe they have been through this type of situation before and had a negative experience. Maybe the details regarding the change are not specific enough, and they are tired of feeling left out of decision-making conversations. Both reasons could be why your peer is resistant to the change.

Next, let’s consider the situation in which you are bothered by your supervisor adding another member to your team without your consideration — you likely had the following concerns:  Does your supervisor think you cannot be successful with your current team? Does your supervisor think you are not doing a good job? Why wouldn’t the supervisor have given you a heads up?

We could develop any number of responses to these two scenarios. However, the moral of the story is that we don’t know why someone reacts the way they do in any given situation. We can assume, but ultimately, we don’t have facts to support such assumptions. Leveraging our viewpoints in any situation allows us to remain unbiased and non-judgmental toward others during difficult situations in the workplace. We must remain mindful that there may be a reason we are not aware of that is causing someone’s negative response to the situation at hand.

So, when applying this belief to our teams, think about a time when your perception of a situation was wrong. Have you ever had one of those moments where you played out a scenario in your head negatively, only to realize the experience was a positive one?  Or, have you found yourself coming up with multiple rebuttals to push back something you were expecting to happen, but never occurred? I believe this is why many of us struggle with accountability discussions. We worry that the outcome will be negative — so, instead of developing talking points, we develop excuses to not to have the discussion and end up justifying the behavior we needed to discuss in the first place. 

Changing Our Perception

So, how do we overcome these thoughts, and how do we not let past negative experiences get in the way of our application of accountability?

First, we must accept that we cannot change the past. If someone had a negative experience in the past, that is out of our control. What we can do, however, is acknowledge that experience. If we are made aware of people’s past experiences, we can focus on creating positive experiences moving forward which will, hopefully, result in a positive perception shift.

Next, we must be intentional in allowing individuals the opportunity to share their insights regarding how they perceived a certain situation or action. One of my favorite resources on the topic of accountability is “Crucial Accountability,” a book by VitalSmarts. One of the tools the book mentions is called “The Conversation Planner.” This tool uses the following format to structure accountability discussions:

Describe the Gap: Start by sharing what was expected versus what was observed.

Expected: “My understanding was that you were going to ______________________.”

Observed: “Instead, you ­­­­­­­­_______________________________.”

End with a question: “What happened?” “How do you see it?”

Then, once we have the proposed accountability conversation, we need to allow that experience to end. Meaning, we need to move on and not bring up the incident unless it is appropriate to do so. This is one of the key ways we can help change the perception of accountability discussions.

If you have ever made a mistake and were called out for that mistake, I would imagine you would want people to drop it and move on. The same feeling applies for accountability discussions. Please note, I am not saying that once an accountability discussion is completed we must forget about it. Rather, it is important that we move on and allow the employee the opportunity to learn from their past behaviors and implement necessary changes moving forward. If the behavior continues, however, then we can bring it to attention during another discussion.

Understanding Expectations

Bringing accountability into teams is something you can do right away. There is no need to wait for the next evaluation period. One of the most important items needed to start this process is simple: expectations.

One of the most common reasons for becoming frustrated is because our expectations are not being met. Think about the previous examples mentioned, and then think about a time when you were frustrated at work. Why were you frustrated? You likely had one of the following answers:

  • “I wish they would communicate more.”
  • “Why didn’t they ask me first?”
  • “I wish they wouldn’t be so rude when they are talking to everyone.”

When we step back and look at these responses, it’s likely that the frustration was due to unmet expectations. We all have expectations regarding how we want others to act. What makes someone a good communicator? What makes someone a good decision maker? What makes someone a good leader? Each of these questions could have several answers. How I answer them will probably be different than you. No answer is right or wrong, it is simply a difference in how we view those questions. The same goes for implementing accountability into our teams.

If I have an expectation, then I need to tell you about it. This seems fair, right? How many times do we have those discussions with our teams about what you expect and what they expect? These conversations may seem awkward, but think about all the miscommunications that could be avoided if we all knew what was expected of us from the start? If we share our preferred mode of communication, how we deal with conflict and how we work through change, it will reduce anxiety and increase productivity and communication alike.

An easy way to incorporate this strategy is to have your team define a term collectively. At your next team meeting, take five minutes to ask a question you would like your group to define.

For example:

  • What does effective communication look like to you?
  • When being assigned a project, what information is most important to you?
  • How do you prefer to deal with conflict?
  • What does success look like to you?

The purpose of asking these questions is to understand your peers’ expectations. Once we are aware of such expectations, we can determine how to most effectively work with other team members. While we cannot always accommodate everyone’s individual preferences, we can remain aware of them and acknowledge them when necessary.

To build on this, let’s change the direction of these questions in order to focus on the team:

  • What does effective communication look like to us?
  • When being assigned a project, what information is important to us?
  • How do we prefer to handle conflict?
  • What does success look like to us?

Now that we have the communication around expectations active in our teams, it is important to discuss the team’s performance expectations. Once these have been explained, we can use them as the guiding pillars to drive our team’s success both now and in the future.