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Accountability is Everybody's Responsibility

Four days ago you were in a meeting with Barb. You discussed a project that you were working on and some information that you really needed from Barb. She agreed that she was going to get that information to you by the end of the day Thursday. Her confidence settled your nerves, as you're getting pressure from your leaders to get this project done on time. It's now Friday morning. You've combed through your email twice and you don't see anything from Barb. Your blood starts to boil. You intentionally scheduled some time in your way-too-busy life to work on the project this morning and now you can't because you don't have the information you need to continue.

What are your options?

I believe that you have three.

Option #1: You can do nothing.

That's right, just ignore that any of this has occurred and go about your regular working day. There are some significant disadvantages to doing nothing. One, your leader will be severely disappointed in you for not completing the project on time. Two, Barb may have no idea of your disappointment and very possibly could continue to repeat such behaviors. Three, you create all sorts of stories about Barb in your mind. You wonder why she intentionally wants to sabotage you. You question if she secretly wants your job or maybe she is scared of your success so she wants to drag you down. Maybe she just gets joy from watching others fail. These stories cause you to get even hotter and you end up sharing some of these stories with others at work. So, you could do nothing but doing nothing is not really doing nothing.

Option #2: You can run to your leader.

Unfortunately, this is probably the most common response for peer-to-peer frustrations. You can't stand that Barb let you down. You demand that someone must know about this. You need to let your leader know what a huge disappointment Barb is. Plus, you can't imagine trying to sort this out with her, so you place it all at the feet of your leader. Three things can come from this too.

  • One, your boss might choose to do nothing. Now you are not only mad at Barb but also your boss.

  • Two, your boss could talk to Barb. Finally, this is what you want, right? However, how do you think this is this going to go? Your boss approaches Barb, he tells Barb about your frustrations, he says that you couldn't get up the courage to talk to her so he had to come and do it. You see, no matter how great of a communicator your boss is, this too is not going to end well. Sure, the conversation will be had, but what will Barb and your leader think of you? How uncomfortable will it be in the next meeting where you and Barb end up sitting next to each other? Will Barb ever be able to trust you again or will she imagine that you're going to run off to the boss about every little thing? Will your leader take you seriously or have the confidence in you to handle future problems? I don't think so.

  • Three, your boss could be the intermediary between you and Barb. This is not fun, plus it takes up your boss's time. It may be able to resolve the situation, but it sets a precedent that anytime there is conflict, you are going to need to have your boss intervene.

Option #3: You could talk to Barb.

Is this conversation going to be awkward? Yup. Will it feel uncomfortable to you and to Barb. Most certainly. But will it help you resolve the issue in the surest and most efficient way? Yes, and that's why this is the best option. Barb might be embarrassed. She might get defensive. Or, she might not know that she did anything wrong. Maybe she forgot or didn't prioritize your information, or just maybe she is being terribly malicious and wants you to fail. Either way, you're not going to know and you're not going to be able to resolve this problem until you talk to her directly. There really is no other choice. And even though it is hard and even though it might damage the relationship, are you both going to be able to get through it and become better? Definitely.

Patrick Lencioni, an expert on teamwork, stated, "More than any policy or system, there is nothing like the fear of letting down respected teammates that motivates people to improve their performance."

Think about it this way: My son Ethan just graduated from high school. For the previous 7 years, he has been playing competitive soccer. His position was the goalkeeper. For most of those 7 years, he held no leadership role on the team. He was simply a teammate - at equal status as most of the other players. Yet, he had no hesitation in holding his team members accountable for the highest level of performance. Often he could be heard from the sidelines yelling phrases such as, "Lane, watch the right side, "Alex, you need to stay on #11 better," "Mohammed, push up!"

In sports, we don't even think twice about such comments. In fact, we expect team members to give feedback to each other during play. So, why is it so hard for us to accept that one of our jobs as a member of the team is to hold the other teammates accountable? Let's be honest, in the conversation with Barb at the start of this chapter, most of us would first run to our boss. We don't naturally think of addressing this head-on with our peers. That would be awkward!

Yet, imagine if we could create a culture of accountability with our team. Imagine if we could comfortably call each other out on lack of follow-through, missed deadlines, or broken rules. Imagine if our team relationship was so strong that we worried more about letting our peers down more than we worried about letting our bosses down.

Growing up, no doubt your parents explained to you the power of peer pressure. They told you of its negative influence, how peer pressure could lead you to drinking, to drugs, and to illegal behaviors, right? So, we constantly tried to steer clear of the pressure of our peers. Some of us did well, and some caved into the pressure every day. Either way, we were taught that peer pressure is bad.

While this may be true in your high school years, peer pressure can be extremely good in teamwork. To quote Patrick Lencioni again, "The most effective and efficient means of maintaining high standards of performance on a team is peer pressure, as politically incorrect as it sounds." Politically incorrect or not, peer pressure works and if you'd like to be an uncommon leader that means doing uncommon things not just in relation to those that you serve, but those that you serve next to too.

We may hesitate at this. We may think, "Who am I to give a peer tough feedback about bad behavior?" We may not want to disrupt the harmony on the team by calling someone out about a missed deadline. Maybe we've already cemented judgments about another and we are not willing to give a colleague another shot. Or maybe we don’t know how to do it correctly and are fearful that our accountability holding may sound like the following:

  • "What's the matter with you?"

  • "You're letting us down."

  • "Do we need to find somebody else?"

  • "Are you that that inept at keeping deadlines?"

Obviously, we don't want our feedback to sound like these personal accusations. Peer to peer accountably is tough. It is probably the toughest behavior to master on a team. It is messy and uncomfortable. But it's worth it! Teams who can speak honestly and openly to each other are the ones that excel. They become efficient and productive. They have trust and have fun and their relationships are stronger because of it.

When I speak about accountability, I am talking about the willingness of team members to call out their peers on performance or behaviors that might hurt the team. Here's an example:

Kathryn has noticed that Martin has a habit of pulling out his laptop during meetings, answering emails, and engaging in other work instead of focusing on the discussion. This is terribly distracting, it interrupts the flow of discussion, and it shows all that he is not taking his commitments to the team seriously.

Kathryn speaks up and says, "Martin, for our team to function at its highest capacity, we need you to be fully present. Please shut your laptop."

Martin looks a little uncomfortable as he turns his computer off and quietly he states, "I'm sorry." Suddenly, the whole team is relieved as they all knew this was an issue but no one had the courage to call Martin out on his unproductive behavior.

Kathryn could have waited until the issue was big enough that her leader would take care of it. She could have waited for others to complain to her leader. But she didn't. She didn't because she knows that on a team, accountability is everybody's responsibility. She also knows that accountability from peers is so much more powerful than accountability from a leader.

If you are willing, if you're courageous enough to have uncomfortable conversations with your peers and to be an uncommon leader, here are a few guidelines to follow.

First, get your heart into the right place. Holding someone accountable is not something to be done in order to make another feel bad, to diminish his or her status with a group, or to elevate your status. If these are your motivations, work on yourself first before you go holding your peers accountable. Your goal is to help them become more engaged and more productive with the group, collaborating with others, and empowering the organization to achieve more.

Second, set the example. The very best way to start is for you first to be vulnerable. Take the lead and ask for insight. You could start off in a soft way by saying collectively to the team, "If I do anything that you find disrespectful or that you think is bad practice, I want you to tell me first. I'll promise to do two things: I'll be open to the feedback and I'll promise to do the same for you." You could also go deep within and find the courage to make it much more personal. For example, following a team meeting, you could ask a peer "How could I better support this team?" or better yet, "What's the one behavior that I use that gets in the way of our team being at its best?"

Third, assume positive intent. Don't let your mind make the assumption that your coworker purposely missed the deadline, or that he is intentionally trying to make you look bad in front of others. In most cases, people are doing the very best they can with what they have. Assume that all of their actions (or inactions) have positive intent. Maybe they didn't follow through on a commitment, but they saw other commitments as more urgent. Trust them that they are doing the best that they can.

Fourth, be clear about the concern. The worst way Ethan could encourage his teammates would be yelling out, "Guys, you just have to play better!" That may be a touch motivating, but it gives no indication as to how or what they need to do to play better. When holding a peer accountable, be clear in your communication. "Frank, I was expecting this report on Thursday. It is not Monday and I still don't have it." "Sue, I feel that you dominate some of the conversations in our team meetings. Twice today I had ideas that I wanted to suggest, but it felt like you talked right over me." "Mike, it may or may not be true, but I heard that you were telling your team that my idea from the team meeting 'sucked'."

Fifth, offer support. While giving feedback to your colleagues is difficult, it goes a lot better if you make the concern known and then offer support. Follow up your clarity statement with "So, Frank, how can I help you?" "Sue, I don't believe this is your intention, so how can I help you get your ideas across while not stomping on other ideas?" "Mike, I'd love your honest feedback about my idea. What would you suggest?"

Again, our number one goal is not to make them feel bad, but rather to get them back on track. To help them engage in strong team collaboration so that we can all be empowered to be more and do more. Directly discussing behaviors that are unproductive or harmful to the team engages people on an emotional level. If you follow the five guidelines above, you invite dialog and can get individuals or the team talking about major roadblocks that could stop the organization from meeting its goals.

Get the courage now and accepted the truth that Accountability IS Everybody's Responsibility.

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