Accountability is a Voluntary Act

accountable (əˈkaʊntəb ə l)
— adj
1. responsible to someone or for some action; answerable
2. able to be explained

Accountability is incredibly important to execution. Without it great ideas remain ideas. Plans remain plans. Nothing gets checked off the list. No progress is made. Accountability may just be the secret sauce of achievement. On teams where accountability is taken for granted people follow through on their assignments, they show up on time for meetings and their reports are turned in on deadline. Accountable teams will challenge one another. They will call people out. And their relationships will get deeper because of this brashness, not in spite of it. This all sounds pretty good. The hard part is making it happen.

At Axiom we get to peek behind the curtains of organizations in a way experienced by few outsiders. What we see in management meetings, weekly updates and annual strategy sessions gives us a pretty good sense of how people relate to one another. This is important because it helps us know how to facilitate future communication within the group. We know who agressively participates, and who needs encouragement. We know who is likely to resist change, and who wants change for change sake. But this isn’t the whole picture. You don’t really understand a team until you see them at something less than their best.

We see a different side when projects fall behind schedule, when targets are missed and when the ball gets dropped. These situations tell us a lot about how accountable these team members are to each other. I experienced this on a team recently when a member openly admitted that the ball got dropped. The response from the team was understanding and encouraging. The admission and the followup discussion resulted in broader support for the idea. Not only did the team recommit itself to the project, several members who were not involved in the initial push volunteered to help out. But there was a tipping point where it could have gone either way. This was the point where accountability would either take center stage and all the goodness and positive effects of an accountable team word would be enjoyed or it was the point where feelings would get hurt, blame would be passed around and nothing constructive would result.

It would be nice if I could tell you that the faciliatator of this meeting had some masterful skill, a talent for getting groups to be accountable to one another. But that was not the case. It would also be nice if I could point to some team development book that they had all read, a book that caused them to see the benefits of accountability and the plan for implementing an accountable culutre. But they had not read any books. Finally, it might be convenient if I could point to some recruiting policy or filtering screen that only allowed accountable people on the team. But there was no such filter.

The truth is that the group tipped the right way for one reason and one reason only. The person who dropped the ball ALLOWED the group to hold her accountable. Accountability is a voluntary act. It is a submissive act. Unless I allow you to hold me accountable you can’t do it. You can try, but the results will be blame and misunderstanding. If you are my boss you can issue an ultimatum. But that is just holding me responsible. It is only when I take responsibility, and do it voluntarily, that I am choosing to be held accountable.

Because accountability is a voluntary act it is up to each team member to create a culture of accountability. As more members submit to be held accountable others emulate their volunteer spirit. The thing that makes all of this possible is trust. Team members who trust one another can submit to one another more easily. Once trust is broken accountability begins to weaken. Once it is gone the team may retain its high achievers, but the synergy of the team is gone. The group will cease to be greater than the sum of its parts.

So what do you do if you find yourself on a team that has no accountability? Worse, what if you are in charge of a team that has no accountability? You care. I don’t mean that you give out hugs before each meeting or that you counsel your teammates. I mean simply that you care about a person enough to speak up when you believe they are producing less than their best. You care about your own work and how it is contributing to the team. You care about the projects and the goals your team has undertaken. You care about results and stop worrying about what people are going to think of you. Get yourself out of the picture and start putting others first. I think you will find that your best work happens when you volunteer to be held accountable and encourage others to do the same.