If you’re staring down the hard work of making some much-needed changes to your organization, it can be overwhelming. What if you could make it feel a bit less daunting? 

When an organization attempts to make a change, it helps  to zero in on the root of their problems. Here are 3 key problems dysfunctional teams often struggle with:

  1. Communication
  2. Trust
  3. Accountability

To oversimplify, poor communication leads to mistrust. Mistrust leads to the inability to hold people accountable. 

I’ve talked quite a bit about accountability — the problem with accountability, accountability vs. compensation, making accountability joyful — because it’s one of the biggest factors in a dysfunctional team.

Accountability is a funny thing. Everyone wants it (for e v e r y o n e else), but nobody wants to be held by it. It’s like the saying goes, “Everyone loves to buy, but everyone hates to be sold.” We like the idea of accountability as long we aren’t the one suffering its wrath.

Moving from a culture with no accountability to a culture of accountability has a tendency to tick people off. Someone has to go first. Someone is going to be singled out as the first one being held accountable, usually in ways others have not been held accountable before, and they are going to absolutely hate that! 

If you plan to shore up the accountability in your organization, it is absolutely imperative that you are clear on how you’ll answer two crucial questions: 

“Why now?” 

“Why me?” 

The answer to both should look something like this: “Because we have to start somewhere, sometime. I understand and own that as a culture, our organization has failed to be consistent. And yet, our expectations are defined in our policy and in the metrics of how we measure our success.”

Here’s a point of clarification (in case you get some pushback from your team on the why now part): That you’re doing it — holding folks accountable, that is — is not the problem. The problem is that accountability hasn’t been maintained until now.

You can put it to your team this way: “The question isn’t ‘why are we suddenly holding ourselves accountable?’ Rather, ‘why have we not been holding ourselves accountable all these years?’ Starting today, we have the opportunity to scale up our accountability in all kinds of meaningful and positive ways, such as conversations, supportive check-ins, refinement of expectations, or shifting objectives as we learn more, etc. This is neither punishment nor micro-management. It’s accountability. And the hardest thing about the first steps of  accountability is that the first person we apply this to may feel singled-out. I acknowledge that. Which is why this is about helping you succeed rather than catching you doing anything wrong.” 

Be prepared for your team to have objections. If you can’t answer their objections, you won’t be able to sustain the shift. And “because I’m the boss” or “because I said so” doesn’t qualify as a response.

Accountability has traditionally been treated as punishment, leaving you out to dry on your own if you did, indeed, fail. Too often, it is used as a way to remove culpability for the leader and everyone else involved. “It’s not my fault,” they get to say, washing their hands of any responsibility, knowing full well that they’re complicit.

Instead, try to think and speak about accountability in positive terms. Here are a few ways to frame it for your team:

  • We’re helping to ensure your success
  • We want to make sure you don’t fail or are left alone or unsupported
  • This is NOT micromanagement but actual management

What does positive accountability look like in practice? For a six-week task, it looks like checking in each week. Along the way, you ask your team the following questions:

  • How’s it going?
  • Do we need to rethink the objective? 
  • Have we been clear? 
  • Is everything working? 
  • What do you need?
  • Do we need to adjust the goal? 

The underlying message? How do we help you!? 

To be frank, this whole approach can feel rather disorienting because we’re not used to positive accountability. We’re afraid we’re being set up — that it’s gonna bite us in the ass. Because we’re afraid. We mistrust each other.

Trust is essential, and it will need to be earned. Work at building it because without it, everything else falls apart. So maintain your cool, truly seek to help, notice when people are confused or uncomfortable, and offer to engage with them to help address their concerns.

You’ve heard me talk a lot about the similarities between leadership and sailing. The crew of a sailboat trusts one another and knows who they can turn to for help. They know the wind can shift and things can change in a heartbeat, and they’re prepared to adjust. 

Building this kind of trust among your team helps to avoid any unpleasant surprises of a task that, in the case of the above example, isn’t completed by week six. With trust, everyone is in it together, is honest in their communication, and wants to succeed together, so no one gets left behind or hung out to dry in week six. If you’re going to miss the six-week mark in Positive Accountability, you’re going to know that weeks in advance and will adjust accordingly to either hit the target or adjust expectations along the way.

I see this example of the need for more trust within law enforcement loud and clear. Out in the field, cops know they can trust one another and confidently put their lives in each other’s hands, but inside the office, things can be quite different. When it comes to careers, interpersonal relationships, competition for advancement, communication on a problem or a misunderstanding, it can all lead to mistrust and the inability to hold one another positively accountable. They often don’t have nearly the trust and faith in one another in-house that they have in the field.  I see this everywhere, in every industry.

If you can build trust within your organization, they’ll also know you have their back when it comes to accountability and consistency going forward. 

Once you have that momentum, that surge of positive morale behind you, there’s nothing you can’t tackle together as a team because people will no longer resist accountability but welcome it.


Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash