Accountability is a crucial ingredient of successful collaboration, and it is often underestimated.
For multinational (and other) enterprises, competitive advantage and successful strategy execution increasingly depend on getting cross-company collaboration right. Executives understand that creating a culture of collaboration and trust, and building and leading teams that work effectively across company units has clear benefits (increased agility, higher level of innovative thinking, cost savings, etc.). ‘But what about accountability?’, I often hear. ‘How to ensure that collaboration in my teams is balanced with personal accountability?’ And it is a good question! The goal of collaboration, after all, is not collaboration but results (read more about the importance of successful collaboration).
And in order to achieve results, the last thing you need is a team where people hide behind each other and don’t feel personally accountable for their actions, where teams are merely brainstorm groups without taking ownership for results. Nevertheless, this is often what happens! You can assign tasks, but you cannot force people to be accountable. Accountability is an act of will.
A prerequisite for successful team collaboration is that team members embrace accountability. Accountability in the sense that they feel ownership for the team’s objectives, feel committed to achieve these objectives, and feel personally responsible for their contribution to the team’s success. Leaders play a crucial role in stimulating this.
What can leaders do to boost accountability in their teams?
These are 4 essential tips that help you create a culture of accountability, based on years of experience in working with teams in different organizations, business environments, and cultures.
1) Focus on creating a shared purpose
Your team exists for a reason. What is the background/reason for establishing this team? What should be our contribution as a team to the organization and its strategy? What are our objectives? How are others depending on our output as a team? What are our key drivers for successful performance as a team? The more team members feel involved in defining the answers to these questions, the more they will embrace accountability.
- Skip this crucial part of team development, and jump straight to ‘let’s get to action’
- Make team members feel they have no say in the team objectives and tasks
- Make the team a group of people who execute assigned tasks, nothing more
- Create a team that is not aware of its role in the grander picture, its impact on the company’s success
- Engage your team actively in answering these questions
- Align your team members around a shared team purpose, and goals
- Create clarity about the importance of achieving these goals
- Define together your team’s operating principles
2) Be open and specific about expected results
Team members start to feel accountable when they feel they are in charge of their own success. A feeling of being accountable is often hindered by a lack of clarity about the results we expect from each other and from us as a team.
- Focus only on tasks (who is doing what)
- Allow team members to be vague about what they will contribute to the team (‘as long as I have finished my task I’m in the clear’)
- Allow your team to avoid discussions about mutual expectations
- Focus on clarifying expected results (what do we need to achieve)
- Be clear about the results you expect from your individual team members
- Involve your team actively in this discussion and stimulate team members to express their expectations towards each other’s contribution, as well as the support they will give to each other
- Ask your team members to openly confirm their accountability
3) Pay special attention to team behavior when things go wrong
When everything goes well, practicing accountability– and taking credit – is easy. But what if things are not going as planned, what if expected results are not met? If you really want to know the level of accountability in your team, watch what happens when something goes wrong, and support your team to respond effectively.
- Allow your team to develop an atmosphere of ‘blame and shame’
- Encourage this process yourself by blaming people and spreading negative energy*
- Accept that team members hide themselves behind others
- Focus your team’s energy on ‘what if this would not have happened’
- Show your team actively that the team’s success matters to you
- Give priority to becoming a stronger team, not to punishing people
- Reduce pressure by making clear that it’s ok to make mistakes, as long as we learn from it
- Focus your team’s energy on ‘what are we going to do to set this straight, and how will we help each other’
4) Last but not least: set the right example upfront
Start by being accountable yourself. Like Carlos Ghosn did, the French-Lebanese-Brazilian CEO credited with turning around the Japanese carmaker Nissan and making the Renault-Nissan alliance a success. When he landed in Japan in 1999, he shook his head in disbelief: ‘If the company did poorly, it was always someone else’s fault. Sales blamed product planning, product planning blamed engineering, and engineering blamed finance. Tokyo blamed Europe, and Europe blamed Tokyo.’ (read his HBR article here ).
How did Ghosn succeed in transforming a blame culture into a culture of personal accountability? By setting the right example, and explicitly assuming his own accountability upfront. When he announced the Nissan revival plan, he publicly declared he would resign if the company failed to accomplish its objectives. ‘Judge me’, he told the world. The objectives were achieved, a year ahead of schedule.
It is in your own behavior that team members will look for inspiration. Set the right example, and you will be on your way to building a team that embraces accountability.
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Aad is a global business advisor, change leader, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and leadership teams globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad and HRS’ services. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization contact us.