27 September 2023

One for the team: How to address your team’s accountability problem

Start the conversation

Melissa Raffoni* says a ‘lack of accountability’ is rarely intentional and is more likely to be the result of an underlying issue within the team.

“We need to hold people more accountable.”

How many times have you said this in the past year? When things aren’t going well, it’s easy to turn to this familiar mantra.

But when you say it, what your team members actually hear is: “You are letting me down,” or, “We are failing.”

While there will undoubtedly be times when your team could put in a more focused effort, a “lack of accountability” is rarely intentional.

More often, it’s the result of an underlying issue, such as unclear roles and responsibilities, limited resources, a poor strategy, or unrealistic goals.

Further, verbalising that there is “a lack of accountability” on your team can easily come off as threatening or condescending.

A better approach is to tackle the issue with a leadership mindset.

Check in with yourself first

When a work issue is causing you stress, pointing “outward” and blaming others is a normal first instinct.

But if you want to have a productive conversation, first consider if you may be contributing to the problem (even unintentionally).

Instead of asking, “Why aren’t they doing their part?”, ask “Is there anything I can do differently to help?”

Before even approaching the other person, consider:

  • Have I been clear about my expectations?
  • Have I asked what I can do to help?
  • Have I taken time to brainstorm and review processes?
  • Have I built a plan of action with my team member?

Create a safe environment for the other person

Remember to be mindful of your tone, whether you initiate a meeting in person or through an email.

Begin the conversation by asking questions.

For example, if your team member is constantly missing deadlines, you could begin by saying, “I’ve noticed that you seem to need a little more time to get the work done lately.”

Provide specific examples, then ask, “What can we do to help you get back on track?”

Avoid jumping directly into critical feedback or using judgemental language.

It helps to assume positive intent in the other person.

The goal here is to listen and to remain genuinely open to their “take” on things.

Listening, paying attention, and understanding the needs and motivations of the other person will help you put aside any assumptions you may be making about their character.

Their explanations may not entirely excuse a lack of initiative or follow through, but understanding the underlying issues can give you a clear idea about how to move forward.

If your team member feels they are truly being heard, they are more likely to feel emotionally safe and work with you to solve the problem.

Whether you are in a leadership position or seeking to be a better peer, listening with positive intent is a skill that will help you reach your goal.

Ensure that there is clarity and a mutual agreement on how to move forward

Whether your goal is to help a direct report meet deadlines or to collaborate more effectively with a team member on a project, it’s vital to make sure that you both understand what the issue is, how to address it, what success looks like, what needs to be done, by who, and by when to achieve it.

Ask if the other person would be open to trying some new strategies to address the issue.

In all cases, seek to demonstrate empathy, and work towards a mutual commitment around a goal.

From there, you can brainstorm and agree to some concrete next steps.

Commit to setting those you work with up for success

Work with your colleague to set up realistic expectations.

No matter what the situation is, you need to be prudent — cut back, reframe, offer support, or delegate work to others where necessary.

Regularly track and measure progress

Make sure you get the agreed upon plan in writing so it can be revisited going forward if there are ever any questions on what was originally decided.

Don’t just set it and forget it.

Determine what communication tools you will use to check in on progress.

Pleading for more accountability isn’t the answer to your problem.

Anyone can express frustration around an issue, but those who harness self-awareness and empathy not only find effective solutions but also build winning teams and colleagues for life.

If you want to be a next-level leader or peer, one that people actually want to work with, shift your mindset, and practise these steps.

You’ll end up driving better results, more impactful change, and reducing your own frustration to boot.

* Melissa Raffoni is CEO of The Raffoni Group. She tweets at @MelissaRaffoni.

This article first appeared at hbr.org/2020/02.

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.