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  • Culture of Accountability: Leveraging Team to Overcome Challenges


When you hear the word accountability, what's your first reaction? What past experiences come to mind? Do you attribute a positive, negative, or neutral connotation to the term? When presented with this term, most people have some reaction, even if it's hidden beneath the surface. Accountability is defined as individuals taking personal responsibility to ensure they hold their commitments. The team plays a critical role in workplace accountability by demonstrating interpersonal trust to accomplish what they have agreed to achieve. The more trust prevails in an organization; the more proactive and transparent individuals will be in reporting successes and failures. 

Most agree that accountability is vital in the workplace. However, a deeper dive into the execution and effectiveness of accountability usually leaves people wanting. Or worse, lousy experiences are invoked, which can be used to invalidate effective accountability without cause. But, in this article, we'll look at why accountability is indeed critical to the overall organizational effectiveness of a company and how we overcome challenges that often get in the way of leveraging a flourishing culture of accountability for a thriving team experience. 

Team D3 Consulting

lean-enterprise-column-logo-small-2Team D3 believes, and we'll affirm in this article, the critical nature of accountability to impact the overall Organizational Effectiveness of a company. We approach organizational opportunities utilizing the Five Pillars of our Lean Enterprise approach.  

While all five pillars are important, some of the most significant opportunities are found in the People pillar. Inherently, when discussing team effectiveness, you must start with the people that make up the team. An intentional application of the value of continuous improvement, both personally and collectively, must be upheld by organizations to overcome the inevitable challenges facing companies today.

Team Culture 

Culture is a term loosely thrown around these days. To pin it down to actionable activities, a three-part definition of culture is important here first, what we choose to allow; second, what we will not tolerate; and third, what we commit to doing. An effective team is clear on all these items. A thriving team is committed to the culture down to the last individual, adding to a collective unit engaging in unison. This clear determination marks a culture of accountability. This culture must be prevalent at all layers of the organization, that is, among peers and leadership alike. 

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Once a culture is established and memorialized (a critical step often overlooked or ignored), many elements are needed for empowered peer accountability. When starting this journey, it takes boldness to speak up amongst peers to encourage adherence to the established culture. Individuals must take risks to share concerns that something is missing the mark set forth by the group. Of course, the level of risk taken varies based on personality and circumstance. Culture isn't just about adhering to large over-arching principles, but it also includes, for example, the importance of finishing what you said you would finish and when you said you would finish it. The up-front agreement that team members are not only permitted but expected to hold each other accountable at this level is crucial. Over time as the team matures and becomes more aligned around this culture of accountability, this requirement of boldness and risk should subside. 

Instead, it will become second nature and a defining characteristic of the team and organization.

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Three Components of a Successful Culture of Accountability


 For this sort of risk-taking to be effective, the environment must include a high level of psychological safety for all. The preceding may be a loaded term, but it isn't that fancy. It's simple (but hard to execute). The prevailing spirit of the team must include the freedom to fail. Failure isn't final. Instead, it is a chance for the individual, team, and company to learn and improve for the next time. Failure is a data point, not a personal blemish. Once again, if this spirit is put into practice, captured, and shared within the team, the overriding stories passed down from one team iteration to the next will tell a story of learning—of continuous improvement. And that is worth the struggle to push the limits without the assurance of absolute success. 

Not Too Nice

This freedom comes at a cost. The cost is a high-demand culture that requires all team members to show up and lean into the team, that is, to the process described above. There is no hiding among team members with a culture of accountability. Often the biggest cultural culprit in this area is the very nice team—even too nice. Fear of hurting someone's feelings can be one of the most insidious beliefs that cripple teams from reaching their potential. The freedom to take risks, and to learn from our past, guides us to link arms with our teammates and reaffirm what everyone has agreed to in the first place. 

Don't Micromanage

As the pendulum swings, there is also a risk that teams can become micro-managers of the culture, nitpicking every little detail under intense scrutiny. This is not ideal nor is the intention of a thriving culture of accountability. Instead, teams should evaluate those critical elements that individuals need to be held accountable to and leave other minor details that won't impact the culture over time up to the discretion of the individual. You've undoubtedly heard the phrase, "Don't sweat the small stuff."

Team D3 CookiesHere's a quick example from the world of baking. Regarding accountability, what should a team of bakers commit to and uphold in their process? Do they need to be accountable for instructions like "Mix the dry ingredients and wet ingredients in separate bowls and then slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients?" Maybe, but only if it affects the quality of the final product in a meaningful way. Based on exhaustive research (that one article), mixing the dry together separately from the wet is essential. But ultimately, mixing the dry or the wet into the dry is a small deal if you combine them individually first. Stressing about accidentally pouring the wet into the dry doesn't help the team execute that killer fudge brownie they are famous for. It adds stress, conflict, interruptions, and possibly waste to the process. The team of bakers should focus on what matters, state the expectations, and then live them out. 

Ultimately, the team must define what should be allowed and not tolerated while exercising a proactive commitment to accountability. All else is left up to the individual team members' discretion. The psychological safety of trust comes back into play here. If it needs to be clarified, have the conversation. If mistakes are made that impact /the good of the team, learn from them, document them, and move forward in grace. 

Continuous Improvement, A Way Of Life

It's funny how some things stay with you, and other memories are a blur of undefined time. When I was in 4th-grade learning about ancient cultures, I remember Mr. Turnage's definition of culture. In fact, it was cemented in my brain as I missed it on the test. It was a simple fill-in-the-blank question (I always hated those as it took away my odds for guessing correctly). "Culture is a way of life," my sheet should have read. It is a simple definition, no doubt, but one that stuck in my 4th-grade brain, thanks to some good data from a failure. 

Funny how lessons learned in elementary school can apply just as well to our grown-up world of business and teams. For instance, one of the ways our company has assisted clients in the past is by helping to hold their staff accountable for keeping up with technical standards to meet industry demands. For some, this can be an intrusive, even threatening experience if they fear they are being exposed for falling behind best practices or expected competencies. However, suppose the principles highlighted in this article have been applied well to a team or company at large. In that case, individuals can breathe a little easier while applying themselves to improve upon their skill sets. This is a data-informed approach to identify opportunities for improvement and to apply knowledge to achieve the targeted improvement. Overall, this raises the bar for the entire team.

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We've described this accountability culture as one that is free to take risks and always learning from the outcome of our efforts. The impact of this value of continuous improvement must be considered. If teams hold this value as a key tenet, quality accountability can be implemented, illuminating where and how progress is needed. Further, this motion creates more action. And more action creates more learning opportunities. More learning opportunities create more possibilities for improvement. This virtuous cycle is the by-product of a good accountability culture. In fact, this will become a way of life for successful teams.

Lead The Way

No serious conversation about any kind of effective culture can be had without the consideration of leadership's role. Leadership sets the tone, communicates the collective value, reinforces adherence to the culture, and stands firm against what isn't tolerated. A strong accountability culture is no stronger than what is exhibited by leadership. People watch leaders. In organizations that struggle to hold teams and individuals accountable, the beginning of the solution is often at the top of the org chart. If leaders are not accountable to the established culture, proclamations begin to ring hollow. Companies with strong accountability must always have equally strong leaders, modeling the way, no matter what. Accountable cultures that thrive are known for caring enough for their people to say the hard things that need to be said to spur improvement. This unrelenting adherence is a powerful example of how to maneuver within the culture. This clear message, coupled with corresponding communication, makes for a strong foundation upon which powerful teams are built.

Leaders must hold courage and empathy in tension to strengthen the bonds of accountability. Modeling the boldness it takes to speak to the behaviors that need to be reinforced, as well as those that need to be discouraged, must be delivered with a level of empathy to communicate the value of each employee, as well as the team and cultural standards. When delivered properly, empathy sets the stage to build team members' trust in the company and the team. This trust increases the likelihood of successful engagement in a powerfully effective culture of accountability.


Our Approach and How We Are Different 

 Foundational in our approach are the Five Pillars: Leadership, People, Process, Technology, and Data. Our business consulting team focuses heavily on the people pillar. We are fortunate to partner with our broad base of experts who can help across the other pillars. We are Continuous Improvement minded, knowing that the pursuit of perfection is the key, not perfection itself. There is no perfect state in our constantly evolving business environments. We draw from Organizational Psychology, Lean, Agile, Design Thinking, and Human Centered Design. Each has something to offer, and even more importantly, they provide multiple perspectives to work with our clients to find the best approach for them. We value the uniqueness of each client and put their needs and context at the forefront. 

We focus on educating ourselves in testing and retesting a diverse range of business ideologies and methodologies. We don't come up with a solution to a narrow set of problems. We come with an open mind, a desire to learn and understand, and ultimately to help you make the improvements you believe are best in your business. We will bring our experience and expertise to the engagement, but our goal is to empower the leaders, managers, and employees to own and carry on the solutions we implement together.


If you're interested in exploring this journey, reach out for a chat by using the form below!




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