Teams Make it Tougher to Hold People Accountable

Teams Make it Tougher to Hold People Accountable

Anyone who interacts with other people, and I assume that covers every single person reading this newsletter, has at some time been frustrated when someone failed to follow through on something that they promised to do. And I would imagine that there were times when most of you said or did nothing and instead seethed and complained to others.

Your action, or lack thereof, is a hot management topic these days and is neatly summed up by the phrase, “failing to hold others accountable.” Since this seems to be something that everyone does at times, why are organizations so focused on it now?

My personal opinion is that the move away from hierarchical work structures to flatter “team based” work structures has made it even tougher to hold people accountable. In the past, there was a person in charge and he or she told people his or her expectations. (Actually, let’s be honest. In the past it was far more likely to be a “he” then a “she.”) When people failed to meet those expectations, he took action or told someone who reported to him to take action. Thus there was a clear “chain of command” rather than an expectation that everyone would be busy holding everyone else accountable.

Now, however, senior leaders are often expected to step back and not meddle in the workings of teams. Frequently, their role is to set vision and direction and be more externally focused – raising money, getting clients, dealing with the public, and so forth. This means the obligation to ensure that people do things when they say they’ll do them has been delegated to the working teams. However, it is often unclear which team member has this responsibility, people are expected to hold peers and friends accountable, and sometimes junior people are expected to hold people senior to them accountable.

(I know I just said that teams are flat, which should mean that there are not a lot of distinctions between who is junior and who is senior, but that is not truly correct. There is always some sort of hierarchy based on qualities like longevity, title, salary, power, connections to management, etc. It is just that now the hierarchy is often less overt.)

To complicate matters further, as the line between work and personal life blends, people have more friends at work. Of course, people have always made friends with their colleagues, but working in teams, as opposed to working for someone, requires a different level of collaboration. It is often more difficult to reprimand a friend than someone with whom you have a purely professional relationship. In other words, it is harder to hold a friend accountable.

Now let me be clear here, I think the shift to a team-based work environment has, for the most part, been a very good shift. It allows for greater creativity, more personal and professional development, broader ideas, more flexibility, etc. However, it also comes with its challenges.

So what can you do about this?

First, if you are a senior leader, it is time for you to admit that, much as you might like to have a non-hierarchical organization, there is no such animal. In fact, if you consider yourself a senior leader then you obviously already know that there is a hierarchy in your organization.

Second, admit to yourself that “holding people accountable” is another way of saying, “tell your friend or colleague that you are not happy about something.” Most people really hate having to do that, probably including you.

Third, recognize that it is unrealistic to expect junior people to hold senior people accountable. Yes, there may be the occasional junior person who can do this, but she is the exception, not the rule.

Fourth, as a senior leader, you cannot just assume that team members will hold each other accountable, thereby letting you off the hook. You have an obligation to delegate this authority to one or more people on the team by telling them that you expect them to make sure the team runs smoothly. And you have an obligation to step in if they fail to exercise that authority.

Finally, if your team members don’t have the skills necessary to have difficult conversations with one another, get them some training. It won’t solve everything, but it will help.



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