Thousands of organizations are eagerly creating empowered work teams in an effort to boost productivity, enhance quality and bolster employee morale. As more and more organizations move closer to full empowerment, however, they hit an obstacle that is becoming self-direction's most burning issue. Sure, you can hand-off management responsibilities and vest teams with the authority to act, but aren't managers really still accountable? How can you hold a whole team accountable when something goes wrong? Won't we end up just pointing fingers at everyone else when a mistake occurs? Creating an environment where accountability is clear and fully accepted is a subtle and complex task.
In a team-based organization, accountability is focused at the team rather than the individual level. This means that the members of the team feel mutually accountable to each other and that the team as a whole, not any one or two individuals within it, accepts accountability for the results of the team's actions.
Accountability is one of three critical components to effective empowerment. Think of empowerment as supported by a tripod. The three legs of the tripod are responsibility, authority, and accountability. Every new task that is handed off to a team needs to be transferred with this balance in mind.
The balance is achieved when a team has 1. a clear understanding of its responsibilities, 2. the authority necessary to fulfill these responsibilities, and 3. the accountability for the consequences of their outcomes.
Why is Accountability So Important?
Hold a Team Accountable?
And what should we care, after all, what part each individual played in making it happen? If your dry cleaner ruins one of your suits, do you hunt down the worker who did the damage? No, you hold the business accountable for making the situation right. You don't care who made the mistake or even who will fix it, just as long as the problem is resolved. So it should be with your teams. Truly empowered teams have the authority to carry out their responsibilities as well as the accountability for collectively fixing things when they go wrong.
Systems for Team Accountability
FOCUS - Systems for accountability begin with a clear focus and expectations. In a team setting, teams need to share a clear mission statement that links directly to the organization's vision. Building on that mission statement a team should identify its collective outputs and devise systems for measuring their success at efficiently delivering quality products or services. Within the team, each member should be clear of his or her roles and responsibilities including agreements on individual expectations and standards of excellence.
Strategies for ensuring focus:
INFLUENCE - Teams will also need to be able to influence the operations of these systems. This means they need to be given as much authority as is reasonable to determine how they achieve the outcomes they have committed to. As Stephen Covey says, "You can't hold people accountable for results if you manage their methods."
Similarly, team members need to have influence over those with whom they are interdependent. Holding teams jointly accountable for their combined results will only work if the people within the team can influence each other's behavior. Ideally this implies team members have what we call "gate control" or control over who joins the team and who stays on the team. At the very least, systems need to be devised such that a team member's feedback carries as much weight as a manager's feedback. This can be affected by instituting a team review process or at least by redesigning your performance appraisal system to include input from customers and teammates.
Strategies for ensuring influence:
CONSEQUENCES - Lastly, an organization's systems need to close the loop by connecting real consequences to a team's actions. Too often managers shield teams from the consequences of what they do. They field complaints from customers or run interference with other departments. If a team is to be held accountable, then they must handle the results of their own actions together. This usually means putting teams in regular contact with their customers, and linking at least a portion of their compensation with their cumulative efforts. (For more information on compensation, see Team Based Incentives - Do They Work?) It also means the whole team is held accountable for the performance of each member. In a team based organization, coaching and correcting individual performance problems is as much a team responsibility as a management responsibility.
Strategies for ensuring consequences:
While less easy to identify, an organization's culture is just as powerful as its systems in determining how much accountability people will accept. While changing an organization's culture is more difficult than tinkering with its systems, changing the systems without addressing the cultural aspects could be a waste of time.
Creating a culture of accountability means developing a climate in which people can speak openly, admit to mistakes without fear, and worry more about serving the customer than looking better than a co-worker. As indicated in the table, there are several cultural dimensions that can contribute to or discourage accountability.
The biggest fear people have about accountability is that they will be punished for their actions. Savvy organizations realize that blaming people for events that have already occurred does more harm than good. It tends to make people secretive about their actions and competitive with their co-workers. Workers end up looking out for "number one" more than for the success of the organization.
In successfully accountable organizations, mistakes are celebrated as learning opportunities. The focus is shifted from finger pointing to jointly figuring out how things should be done differently in the future. One team we encountered began each of its weekly team meetings with a celebration of the week's biggest screw-up. This technique not only effectively surfaced problems and got them solved, it virtually drove fear out of the workplace.
Changing from a culture of blame to one of honest and trusting problem solving usually boils down to the way each of us behaves with each other. Use the list of strategies below to help your leaders and teammates foster a culture of shared accountability.
Marsha Willard and Darcy Hitchcock
1. Excerpted by permission from "The Accountability Hot Potato" by Darcy Hitchcock and Marsha Willard.