My heart sank as I heard the news. I sensed that not much had happened since the board retreat I facilitated for a nonprofit some months ago, and my follow-up call with the board chair confirmed what deep down inside I already knew. Despite the fact that the board continued to meet on a monthly basis, the good ideas that were raised during the retreat and had made their way into a plan were yet to be acted upon. The board chair seemed to be genuinely perplexed that even though board members were unanimous in expressing their commitment to advance the nonprofit’s mission and to hold each other accountable for doing so little, if anything, seemed to be happening outside of their monthly meeting.
If this scenario is familiar to you, then you’ve likely experienced a common stumbling block that people encounter when working together, which is accountability. According to management consultant, Patrick Lencioni, in one of his most influential books, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, accountability involves setting clear expectations and being willing to call each other out for the good of the team when someone’s behavior contradicts these expectations. Accountability is also a measure of our willingness to have difficult conversations about enforcing these expectations.
The Irony of Team Relationships
Accountability can be tricky, even in the best of circumstances, such as when team members have a history of working together, get along well, and regularly interact face-to-face. Relationships, regardless of whether they are personal or professional, require regular attention so that they continue to grow and strengthen over time. However, when teams are under pressure to demonstrate social impact, oftentimes with limited time and funds, this is when there is a tendency for relationships to be neglected. Insufficient attention to relationships can make it harder for teams to overcome challenges, particularly if there is an escalation of unhealthy conflict and an erosion of trust.
For teams that work together virtually, as volunteers, or perhaps both, holding team members accountable can present an added challenge, particularly if team members don’t know each other well, rarely interact face-to-face, and have other commitments that interfere with the work of the team. To illustrate this point, I was introduced to a business leader who expressed interest in joining a working group I’m a member of for socially responsible businesses. Since we’re all volunteers I thought it would be fine to have some additional help. I reached out to my colleagues thinking that this was something that could be easily decided via e-mail prior to our next monthly meeting so that the new member, if approved, could attend. What seemed like a simple, routine matter soon became more complex.
One of the working group members responded to my message by questioning whether we needed to expand the size of our group. She also suggested that we allocate some time for our next meeting to discuss criteria for adding new members and having term limits. After I was able to process my gut reaction, which was not positive, I realized that she was right to question how our group was functioning and that her remarks were not intended to be critical, but to serve the best interests of the team. Having known this person for a while and being accustomed to her personality as a challenger made it easier for me to recognize the intention behind these remarks and to appreciate her perspective.
Putting Accountability into Practice
Here are some tips that can help you and your fellow team members build greater accountability
1. Set Clearly Defined Expectations
High-performing teams not only focus on what gets done, but how these tasks are completed. This involves setting expectations, shortly after the team has been formed, about how members will work together. Expectations can be explicit, such as requesting punctuality for meetings, or implicit, like beginning meetings on time. What is important is that team members understand what is expected of them.
Expectations are more likely to be followed when there is not only clarity about what they are, but also ownership of them. This means that team members take responsibility for setting expectations and voluntarily agree to them. Closely related to this idea is that members are committed to acting in the best interests of the team. This involves a willingness to prioritize collective over personal interest.
3. Clear Communication
Fundamental to accountability is clear communication. This not only pertains to setting and enforcing expectations, but includes all team interactions. Although misunderstandings are common in relationships, taking the time to check in with yourself about your intention as well as paying closer attention to how your messages are delivered and received can help minimize miscommunication.
4. Take Care of the Small Stuff ASAP
When misunderstandings, conflicts, or other issues that negatively affect the team arise, it’s usually better to address them early on. A consequence of holding back is that problems can fester and ultimately become more complicated and time consuming to resolve. Sometimes the benefit of speaking up about a small issue that gets resolved early on is that this can make a big difference.
5. Make Time for Relationship-Building
Even the best accountability process can fall apart if relationships are not in place to support it. This means valuing the importance of getting to know your team members, such as allocating extra time in meetings for informal conversation, incorporating team building into your work, or organizing social activities. The more familiar we are with our team members, the easier it is to build trust and demonstrate the vulnerability needed to enter into difficult conversations about accountability.
Much like relationships, accountability isn’t easy. It requires communication, commitment, and consistency. The reward for making accountability count is that teams are not only higher performing, but also more enjoyable to participate in.