This 'A' Word Can Make Or Break Your Team

Accountability isn't a hindrance. It's a superpower.

learn more about Jeff Boss

By Jeff Boss

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In a survey of more than 40,000 people on the topic of accountability, 82 percent of respondents said they had either failed when they tried to hold others accountable, or avoided doing so altogether. This clearly reveals a leadership challenge of epidemic proportions -- making and keeping commitments is a core function of effective teams. I don't know what would've happened in the SEAL Teams had we not held each other and the team accountable. Actually, I do know what would've happened. Nothing. We wouldn't have achieved our goals had there not been other team members holding themselves, each other and the team accountable.

Accountability is the lifeblood that ensures commitment in a team -- it isn't just a "nice to have." Without shared accountability that characterizes teamwork, what you have instead is a group of individuals occupying the same space breathing the same air. Unfortunately, people tend to shy away from accountability because they fear what others might think. The common fear is that their accountability measures will be received as finger-pointing or micromanaging, so they avoid the hot-button issue of holding others accountable altogether. Sometimes people mask the reason for why they're not holding others accountable with the ever-so-thoughtful "I don't want them to feel bad if I hold them accountable" rationale. Realistically, what this thought pattern reveals is selfishness -- somebody putting his or her own needs before the other person's or the team's because he or she doesn't want to feel bad.

Related: Build a Culture of Accountability in 5 Steps

Don't let the fear of accountability bug bite you. Here are three ways to exploit accountability rather than be stifled by it:

Define it upfront.

There are two reasons why you want to define accountability from the start. When you decide as a team what accountability is, what it looks like and why it's important, you create shared expectations. The team operates off the same sheet of music. Without this conversation, you leave accountability open to individual interpretation which is the same as saying, "I'll meet you in Texas." Texas is rather large. You need to give direction around the date, time and location for where you'd meet in Texas if you want to actually be productive.

A few questions to spur your thinking around an accountability conversation: What does accountability mean to me and to this team? What are acceptable methods of holding others accountable and what will not be tolerated? Where is the boundary between accountability and blame? Simply having these conversations as a team will do wonders not only for building greater team cohesion but also comfort around team accountability.

The second reason why defining accountability up front is important is because it strengthens relationships. Accountability quells team tension because everybody is clear at the outset why accountability is important. Conversely, having accountability conversations at the back end of a project tend to incite tension because it's considered "after the fact."

Related: 5 Keys to Promoting Accountability in Your Business

Reiterate the process.

As your team defines accountability, be sure to stress the point that accountability is about performance, not personal preference. It's about squeezing every last ounce of potential out of each member and the team as a whole so you can do extraordinary things together.

One way to do this is to create a team norm of asking questions that are forward rather than backward-focused. A backward focused question might be, "Why weren't we successful with project XYZ?" as opposed to its forward-focused counterpart, "What can we learn from project XYZ that will help us improve for next time?" Backward-focused questions can come off as accusatory in nature whereas forward-focused questions are exploratory; they're geared toward learning. You want the team to understand that questions are tools that enable the team to course correct as necessary so it can stay on track and achieve its goals.

Related: Don't Blame Others -- Learn From Their Mistakes

Make it visual.

Once you identify the goal of your next team meeting, write it on a whiteboard or flipchart for all to see. This way, if the meeting derails into sidebar conversations you or another team member can simply point to the purpose of the meeting to which everybody has already agreed. By doing so, you make the board the centerpiece of accountability and relieve pressure from yourself.

Accountability isn't a hindrance. It's a superpower. Like most things, its effectiveness comes down to how well it's communicated.

Jeff Boss

Leadership Team Coach, Author, Speaker

Jeff Boss is the author of two books, team leadership coach and former 13-year Navy SEAL where his top awards included four Bronze Stars with valor and two Purple Hearts. Visit him online at

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