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This post documents some thoughts I have about accountability within my organization, and how I plan to speak to the team about accountability.

Accountability is vital in an organization. Within an organization members must be able to work together with trust. Trust often manifests as the belief that individuals will operate within a set of expectations. When behaviors deviate from those expectations, trust within a team is broken. When behavior deviates from expectations, accountability can bring team trust back into balance.

Almost everybody experienced the dreaded “team project” during high school. When the teacher picked the team members and you divvied up work you almost certainly had that one member, “Skip”, who did not pull their weight. Your team assigned them an entire section of writing, but the night before the project was due they didn’t turn anything in. They didn’t pick up their phone. They didn’t respond to email. You may have spent an all-nighter fixing the problem they caused just so your grade wouldn’t suffer.

What happened to Skip’s grade? There are two ways this story can end, and they hinge on whether the teacher has a way for team members to assess each others’ performance:

  • If there is no way to identify that Skip contributed nothing, then Skip’s grade will be the same as yours. There is no way to hold Skip accountable in this case, and the team is likely to be bitter towards Skip, each other, the teacher, and high school in general.
  • If the teacher asks the team members to report on how much effort each student put in, then weights grades appropriately, Skip will surely fail. This holds Skip accountable. The team may still not like Skip much, but they certainly feel better towards each other, the teacher, and the institution.

Ownership is extreme accountability. Every individual should strive to take ownership as a leader and as a follower. When a team member exemplifies ownership, they hold themselves responsible for everything within their control. Even for requirements outside their control, an individual exemplifying ownership holds themselves responsible for how they pursue and manage those requirements. Take ownership of your behaviors and outcomes, and for your team’s behaviors and outcomes.

Taking ownership on a team project looks like completing it despite Skip’s inaction. Skip’s choices were out of your control, but completing the project despite him is within your control. For a team exhibiting ownership, Skip’s inaction is no excuse for not completing the project. The team that takes ownership despite Skip may not have enough time to earn an A, but they will complete the project.

Supervisors and team leads must mentor their teams, driving each member towards personal accountability and ownership. When team members fail to take personal accountability, find ways to bring corrective accountability. That is, find ways to take measures which will help members correct and improve themselves. Our people are fantastic and want to do awesome things, most will want to improve when they fall short. Always remember to pursue measures with fairness and thoughtfulness.

For that team exhibiting ownership of their project, how will they feel if the teacher fails to hold Skip accountable? Their trust in the teacher, the school, and their classmates will surely plummet. They may Skip working and responding to the next team project, thinking that it seems to work for other students.

The simplest and most effective form of mentorship supervisors and team leads can employ is “leadership by example”. Continually set the example of individual accountability and ownership and you will demonstrate exactly what is required of your team. You will demonstrate that taking personal responsibility for your own failures is acceptable and actually expected, and by normalizing such behavior you will eliminate fear of it.

The simplest method of bringing corrective accountability is to, privately, ask someone to explain their action or inaction. This works for peers as well as supervisors and team leads. Simply ask and listen. If needed, ask follow-up questions. Have an open mind, but remember yourself and the issue requiring accountability. Provide the person feedback if they do not take ownership, recommending that they consider the issue differently. Thank them if they do exhibit ownership.

Consider telework, for example:

  • Are you setting the example you expect of your team members and peers? Are you getting your 40 hours per week, transparently and visibly? You should not be working 50 hours regularly, nor 30.
  • When people seem to fall short do you privately ask why? With “why” there are so many potential answers. Perhaps they were just slacking. Or, perhaps they were: having a weird day, ill, new and simply confused, having a mental health issue, having family trouble, otherwise simply afraid to ask a question.
    • Be flexible, open, and assume good intent with some explanations - our people are great, treat them that way.
    • If personnel are regularly unresponsive and unproductive - that’s a sign they’re falling short. Remember though that some people, especially engineers and admin staff, often require uninterrupted blocks of 2 or 4 hours to complete their work efficiently.
    • If personnel fail to take ownership for vital things like customer or mission support - that is also a sign that they’re falling short of expectations.
  • Validate that your expectations are clear and understood. Miscommunication is common in all human relationships - root it out when possible.
  • When people fall short repeatedly and are not correcting:
    • Have confidence in yourself as a leader.
    • Start more significant corrective actions small, then grow them in severity as needed.
    • Ask for help from the chain of command, if needed.
    • Keep the chain of command informed.
    • Know that the chain of command will back you up with decisions like rescinding telework.

If you notice performance issues, it is likely that others have too. Perhaps people are starting to feel like they’re on Skip’s team. Perhaps they’re starting to lose faith in each other. Take ownership of your team and your interactions with peers. By holding our teams and peers accountable you will improve trust.

Trust is vital within an organization, and relies on team members operating within a set of expected behaviors. Our team is amazing, but people will deviate from expectations. Leaders and peers that do not hold those team members accountable through mentoring and correction destroy team trust and build animosity. Take ownership of yourself and your teams.