Why Teams Fail, Part 4: Avoidance of Accountability in the Workplace

Avoidance of Accountability in the Workplace

This is the fourth installment in our 5-part Why Teams Fail series in which we cover common dysfunctions that cause a breakdown in team dynamics. In Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3, we discovered that a highly functioning management team has to start with trust between members. This leads to open and honest, sometimes heated debates on the issues. The open discussions lead to team buy-in and commitment to the business decision. With this commitment to the decision and communication of that decision to the company, let’s focus on how to prevent the fourth dysfunction of a team: avoidance of accountability.

Accountability is the willingness of the management team to remind each other when they are not living up to the standards of the group. Accountability in the workplace means that missed commitments, dropped action items or schedule issues are not ignored or glossed over by the rest of the team. I am referring to direct peer-to-peer accountability, not manager to employee.

This may be the hardest dysfunction to overcome, because it requires a high level of discomfort to accomplish. Our nature as humans is to completely avoid this kind of conflict, because if feels judgmental, harsh and even mean. We are also concerned that if we call someone on something, we may be the next target. Or maybe they will stop liking us. Best to avoid that situation.

Holding each other accountable means that the rules are clear — everyone is on the same page regarding what is expected. State clearly that the team must present a unified front when communicating this decision to the appropriate parties. Accountability isn’t really possible if the rules were never very clear.

Why Unclear Rules Prevent Accountability

Why Unclear Rules Prevent Accountability

You’ll want to confront difficult issues and ensure rules are clear. The open laptop in a meeting is a great example. We have all done it, we all still do it and everyone else hates it.

You have probably witnessed this: someone says something to someone else about the open laptop and how it disturbs people. The guilty party lashes out at the comment with something like, “Well, you did it last week”; or, “Mind your own business, I’m taking notes. It’s fine.”

Either a heated argument starts, or you just slink back into your chair and don’t say a word for the rest of the meeting. Probably the last time you ever say anything about open laptops.

The first problem is that there may not be a clear team rule about open laptops in meetings.

This lack of clarity adds to the general discomfort of calling out a teammate on an issue. People will not be inclined to challenge certain behavior if the ground rules are not clear. Clarify the meeting rules.

The second problem is that without clearing up the first three dysfunctions, there is little hope that team members are going to be willing to overcome the discomfort of calling each other out for something. I can’t overstate this issue. The simple open laptop example, as easy as it may be, highlights the discomfort issue.

Why Unclear Commitments Prevent Accountability

Why Unclear Commitments Prevent Accountability

A harder example is a failure of a team member to follow through on a commitment made to the team, either spoken or implied.

As we have discussed in prior articles on why teams fail, clarity of decisions is a key component in a meeting setting for making sure everyone is on the same page. So, what happens in the next meeting when the team discovers that Bob never bothered to communicate a key decision down to his team as expected?

With this dysfunction in play, which it usually is, the discovery of the missed communication is met with uncomfortable silence, with everyone looking down at the table to avoid any eye contact. Eventually, the team leader says something like, “Well, get it done as soon as you can,” and the meeting continues.

So, what happens here? Why is this such a huge problem? First, why bother having commitments and rules about clarity if the team isn’t going to follow them? Second, what does it tell the rest of the team about following through with something? (Seems to be allowed, so it must not be a big deal.) Third, if the team isn’t overly concerned about following through on a commitment, why bother buying in to the decision to begin with? And fourth, if the team isn’t overly concerned with buying in to decisions, why bother participating in the discussion to begin with?

Overly dramatic? Nope, this is pretty much how human nature works. With our natural inclination to avoid uncomfortable situations and protect ourselves, any opportunity to go down the more comfortable path will generally be taken without even thinking about it.

All this because an individual wasn’t held accountable for not doing something they committed to doing. If instead, when it was discovered that Bob did not follow through as expected and the key communication didn’t take place, what if the team had a discussion at that moment about the importance of the communication aspect of a decision?

This discussion would not have to directly challenge Bob, even though everyone would know it was about Bob. And it would go a long way towards reinforcing the commitment issue in the team. If this was an open and honest conversation on the topic, using Bob as an example, chances are the team wouldn’t have a lot of issues in the future about this kind of follow-thru.

Drive Home the Importance of Commitment and Follow-Thru

Drive Home the Importance of Commitment and Follow-Thru

Take this concept further to the really hard issues. Problems like missing sales numbers, not making a key phone call as expected, blowing a schedule of some sort or missing a key meeting with a client.

These examples are a great time for a team to discuss the importance of commitment and follow-thru, as well as showing the immediate repercussions of the specific failure without really having to get in someone’s face. It becomes a slightly more comfortable way to address the failure. It also avoids the slippery slope of just letting it go. Don’t ever just let it slide. And don’t ever miss an opportunity to readdress the dysfunctions and the implications of them.

Avoidance of accountability in a team leads to the last dysfunction, which we talk about next week in the final article on Why Teams Fail.