Teams, Org Design

Team Accountability Matters: Here's How To Improve It

By: Functionly

For better or worse, teams across an organization tend to develop their own internal cultures. While these cultures vary widely, every team should have one characteristic in common: accountability.

It’s a hot topic filled with nuance and often met with resistance from managers and team members alike. But what exactly is accountability, and how can you build it within your team?

What Is Team Accountability?

Team accountability is a series of processes and standards that directly influence a team’s ability to meet its obligations. For example, it might include:

  • Meeting deadlines
  • Completing projects successfully
  • Following up on communication
  • Providing deliverables as promised

When a team fosters a culture of accountability, it’s better equipped to fulfill its role in the company, and the rest of the organization is able to operate more efficiently.

Why Is Accountability Important Within a Team?

Team accountability is important because it is a driving factor in team success. To note, you can build a team of exceptionally talented individuals who all have a strong sense of personal accountability, but if you don’t encourage a culture of accountability on the team level, the full potential of the team is never reached.

What Happens When a Team Lacks Accountability?

A team that lacks accountability struggles in many ways. First of all, the team may suffer from a high turnover rate. When talented individuals notice that the rest of the team isn’t pulling its weight, they grow frustrated and quickly search for opportunities elsewhere.

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A lack of accountability also translates to a lack of trust, both within the team and without. Team members may feel pressured to overcompensate for their peers because they can’t trust them to fulfill their duties, and other teams in the organization won’t feel as though they can count on that team to deliver on its promises.

Even projects that are completed successfully are more laborious in a team with no cohesive sense of accountability. For example, it becomes much more difficult to verify the completion of tasks and deliverables, introducing avoidable roadblocks into the workflow.

Signs of Poor Accountability and How to Build It Within a Team

You may suspect that your team is struggling with accountability, but here are some common red flags: 

  • People can’t immediately identify who is responsible for a task
  • It takes too long to make decisions
  • There is consistent underperformance
  • Individuals stand out as taking on either too much work or too little
  • There is excessive “checking in” from stakeholders

You should also be wary of team in-fighting. Of course, this isn’t always caused by accountability issues, but resentment does build when some team members perceive that others aren’t meeting their responsibilities.

With that in mind, here are some ways to build accountability within your team.

Assign Accountability to a Single Person

While multiple people can be assigned tasks and work together to complete them, only one person should be accountable for each outcome. For example, one person is responsible for ensuring that sales reports are delivered to the managers on time for the quarterly sales meeting. However, multiple people may contribute the data that makes up those reports. 

This prevents team members from dodging the responsibility of accountability since they otherwise might assume that “someone else was taking care of it.”

Accountability Requires Empowerment

To contribute to team accountability, every member of the team must be empowered to:

  • Make decisions
  • Delegate tasks
  • Follow through with others
  • Gain knowledge and competencies

Whether this is made possible through training or resources, managers must ensure that their team is equipped to handle accountability.

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Share Accountability Information

Team leaders need to do more than assign accountability. They must also share that information with the rest of the team. Without this communication, the people accountable for outcomes may run into roadblocks.

For example, if the person accountable for sales reports begins asking their peers to enter their numbers into the system, that might cause some friction. Team members may perceive this person as being bossy or intrusive. However, if the team is clear that this person is responsible for those reports, they are more likely to cooperate.

Set Clear Expectations

Unclear deadlines and expectations detract from team accountability. For this reason, it’s important to communicate what you want done, who you expect to do it, and when they should finish it. It’s fine to gather feedback to ensure that your expectations are reasonable, but they should ultimately be clear.

Formalize Things

If you want to earn team buy-in on your efforts to create more accountability, put things in writing. This helps create a sense of ownership and motivates people to ensure they achieve their outcomes.

For example, the person responsible for sales reports could receive the title of Sales Data Specialist. This way, they don't simply have extra work to do — they have a clear, formal role. That’s something they can take ownership of and be proud of.

Follow Through and Maintain Standards

Even if a new accountability initiative seems successful at first, it’s important to monitor its ongoing success, follow through with team members, and maintain high standards. This is especially important when accountability has been a clear issue in the past.

Things will inevitably get uncomfortable at some level, and that’s okay. You may be dealing with people who simply aren’t used to being held responsible for doing their jobs. But accountability is not an unreasonable stance. Keep in mind and make clear that your goal isn’t to rule with an iron fist. Instead, you simply want to create a sense of urgency and self-ownership.

Accountability and Remote/Distributed Teams

Discussions about remote work invariably turn to the matter of accountability. After all, how can managers establish accountability without access to the same kind of supervision they had before?

It’s easy to respond that good managers shouldn’t need to share a physical space with their workers and oversee every minute detail to create a sense of accountability. This may be true, but some undeniable struggles are still unique to remote work. These tips will help you overcome those.

Encourage Habits that Build Accountability

You can allow the flexibility and autonomy that comes with remote work while also using your leadership position to encourage habits that increase accountability. Start by having team members create and share their weekly plans during a Monday morning check-in session. In addition to helping them focus their efforts and plan their days carefully, communicating their intention with the group increases accountability.

You can also have team planning sessions that focus on long-range goals. During these sessions, you can assign accountabilities, set deadlines, and create KPIs for each role.

Clarify How Work-from-Home Will Work

There are many ways to build a remote work culture centered on accountability. Some organizations can create a more casual structure with plenty of flexibility, but others need to be a bit more regimented. While there are good and bad ways to implement either approach, the easiest way to fail in both cases is to not set clear guidelines.

Here are some options to consider as you establish work-from-home policies:

  • Communication around absences and schedule changes
  • Regular meetings and check-ins
  • Mandatory availability times
  • Device policies
  • On-call rotations and compensation

Transparency is important, but so is empathy. After all, people who are working from home may face unique challenges. However, it’s possible to foster accountability while also considering your team members’ needs.

Use Technology to Facilitate Communication

Communication and accountability are tightly intertwined. As such, remote and distributed teams must depend on regular, synchronous, and real-time communication. This is necessary for team leaders to follow up on tasks and deadlines and for team members to communicate with one another about dependencies.

Identify modern tools that will work for your team, and ensure that everyone has access to them and thorough training.

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The 5 Cs of Teamwork

If you want to build a team that values accountability, you also need to develop a strong sense of teamwork. Accountability only happens when team members work cooperatively and want each other to do well, so make sure you keep in mind the 5 Cs of teamwork:

  1. Communication: Communication must be accurate, thorough, and timely
  2. Contribution: Team members must be clear about roles and responsibilities
  3. Commitment: Everyone must know and work toward team goals
  4. Compromise: Managers must balance high expectations with empathy
  5. Cooperation: The team must support each other and management

When team members want good outcomes for each other and value everyone’s successes, it only fosters accountability.

Building Team Accountability in Organizational Design

The good news is that accountability can be facilitated by incorporating documents like Functionaly’s accountability charts into organizational design.

Accountability maps provide an objective assignment of accountabilities and ensure that major functions can be carried out without significant debate over which person is responsible for particular outcomes. This gives teams more time to work on and successfully execute projects.

By taking advantage of resources that foster communication and transparency, teams can implement accountability right from the start, rather than retroactively trying to add it as an afterthought.

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