Thoughts on Leadership: How to Add Accountability to Your Team

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me at home, starting Monday with my typical WIG calls. On Tuesday, I had my Berkshire Hathaway Energy early morning meeting and on Wednesday, I participated in the HomeServices of America Relo Rally and had two meetings with acquisition prospects for our ever-growing brands. Through it all, one theme kept reverberating in calls and virtual conferences: accountability.

It’s the worst-kept secret out there: The difference between a team with low productivity and a high-performing team is accountability. And if you think your team has successfully implemented accountability in your system of execution, there’s always room for improvement. (Remember, as I’ve often said, smugness comes before arrogance and arrogance is the precursor to disaster. Once you think you know it all, your slide to mediocrity has already begun.)

Teams with low accountability rarely set out to be that way. There’s not a team in the world that believes, “OK, let’s do the least amount of work possible and not hold each other accountable to our commitments.” Most people want to grow together, and low accountability isn’t an intentional state of being. Usually, low accountability results from another related issue, like failure to plan, no system of execution, undefined responsibilities, a weak strategy or a profusion of undefined goals. (Wildly Important Goals should be limited to about one or two, at the maximum three. The more goals you set, the less likely your team is to achieve them.)

Another issue with low accountability is how you combat it; when a leader approaches a team about the lack of accountability, it can be seen as a threat or condescension. Instead, accountability problems can be tackled with positivity and strong but supportive leadership that focuses on actionable ways to improve.

Like a well-balanced meal, there are several components that go into healthy accountability. To build, maintain or grow accountability within your team and organization, consider these four factors:

Follow-through. Think back to when you were a kid, and your mom told you if you didn’t behave you wouldn’t get dessert after dinner. When you misbehaved and she sent you to bed without your favorite ice cream, you learned that in order to get the ice cream next time, you couldn’t repeat the bad behavior. That’s a definitive example of follow-through influencing behavior. If she had given you the ice cream anyway, you might not understand that you were being held accountable for your actions. The same concept applies to teams. Accountability hinges on the concept of following through, not only in doing what you say but also in knowing the negative consequences of not fulfilling your commitments. The good news is that when you hold team members accountable, they’ll self-correct each other, and not by withholding proverbial sweets but by the societal pressure of saying you’ll do something then not doing it. When this happens, the team member who did not complete the task will lose respect and trust from other teammates, which is a professional kind of punishment that’s hard for a highly motivated person (or anyone) to tolerate.

Consistency. Not everyone wants or is able to be consistently held accountable. Why? The minute you’re held accountable, you’re, well, held accountable. Accountability is not for everyone because it exposes the people not doing their job. What you say must be done. What you commit to must be completed. What you set out to accomplish must be achieved. In an accountability-starved team, there are no ramifications for unfulfilled commitments. In a team with accountability coursing through its professional veins, no commitment goes unfulfilled without consequences. Accountability is a consistent, ever-present part of goal-achievement.

Persistence. If complacency is one of the worst traits to possess as leaders, persistence is one of the best. When you couple persistence with goals set high, persistence equals success. To set goals high, surround yourself with people who will constantly push you to level up what you think you’re capable of achieving. A team of top-performers will continually push each other through inherent persistence to become even better tomorrow than they were today. Low expectations lead to complacency. Sub-par goals lead to complacency. A lack of motivation or an unwillingness to change leads to complacency. Remember, casualness creates casualties. What’s the best way to fight complacency? Persistence. And while personal persistence is good, team persistence is great.

Mentorship. To keep team members accountable, you have to be willing to coach them. A leader guides their team through challenges and celebrates their small wins together. Reinforcing positive behavior is a huge component to creating a high-functioning team. As former San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Bill Walsh once said, “Few things offer greater return on less investment than praise.” Remember, your team members will feed off your energy, and positive energy is infectious. Walsh said, “Your enthusiasm becomes their enthusiasm.” Coaching also means scorekeeping (a competent coach always knows the score). Remember, when performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported back, the rate of improvement accelerates.

So, what’s the message? Accountability is the key to team success, and it requires follow-through, consistency, persistence and mentorship. When a team lacks accountability, you will know it. Goals will not be accomplished; performance and morale will be low. When team members hold each other accountable, the shift will be evident; you’ll increase productivity, motivation, positivity and team wins over and over again.

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