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Henley Leadership Group Blog

The Key To Building A High-Performance Team


Previously published on Forbes.com

Do you want to build a high-performance team? Start with accountability.

Accountability means owning the process, product or conversation and being 100% responsible for the outcome, no matter what. A lack of accountability can produce resentment, frustration and anger throughout the entire team.

I work with many clients who ask me what they can do to create more accountability at work. Where to begin? First and foremost, it’s important to remember that your team members are “FFAs” – fully functioning adults. You are not their mother or father. You can and should ask them to do hard things that they don’t know how to do. This is what fosters learning, innovation and collaboration. Keep raising the bar for your team. Find out who is willing and ready to step in and step up. If they don’t have enough skill for what you’ve asked them to do, show them how you do it by coaching and training them. If they need you to do it for them over and over, they may be in the wrong job or they may need more development — or this task may need to go to another FFA on your team.

Here are three strategies to use to hold people accountable:

  1. Be clear. Be sure you have clarity about what there is to do, who will do it and by when (the deadline). Don’t leave a meeting without nailing down these important details: what, who and by when. When accountability is missing, often, so is this kind of clarity. One common mistake leaders make is not asking for clarity about what will be done, by whom and by when. If you don’t push for clarity before you leave a meeting or a conversation, you are likely to fall into the trap of making assumptions, which predictably leads to communication breakdowns. Demanding clarity is not a weakness; it’s essential to accountability. You can’t hold someone accountable for something they didn’t even know they were supposed to do.
  2. Don’t invite excuses and stories. Encourage your team to simply communicate that they didn’t get (or aren’t going to get) something done. No drama, no story. The key here is to not ask “why.” Asking why will encourage someone to tell you all of the reasons and the story about why they couldn’t get it done. Instead, ask for a new promise for when the thing will be complete — no excuses, no blame, no passing the buck.
  3. Check in, don’t “check-up,” on your team. Don’t become parental. Check in and find out how things are going. If you have a trusting relationship, your team will tell you the truth. If you don’t, your team is likely to hide anything they think will upset you — including missed deadlines or dropped balls. On a healthy team, they will hold one another accountable and have the hard conversations when needed. You don’t have to be the only one checking in on promises made.

Keep in mind, no one wants to miss a deadline or break their promises. That’s no fun, and it makes the person feel bad. On the other hand, most people feel great when they complete something they said they would do. It creates a sense of accomplishment and pride.

But we know that commitments are often made without complete clarity about what following through entails. Here’s an example: Your boss needs more data on the manufacturing costs of a certain product by Friday. Your team agrees, not realizing that this information isn’t readily available, and a report can’t be produced by Friday. The promise can’t be kept. This results in frustration and embarrassment and a general sense that your team isn’t reliable.

A better approach: When you find that you can’t deliver on what you promised, as quickly as you can, go back to the person expecting the thing and renegotiate. Explain the circumstances (without story) that are making it impossible to deliver.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Under promise and over deliver.” When you consistently do what you say — and more — you’ll be seen as a person with integrity. Accountability is a crucial part of this. What makes a team work best is when every individual’s personal drive is balanced by his or her deep commitment to others and to the outcomes.

Bottom line, this is about doing whatever it takes, not wanting to let colleagues down and never forgetting that it’s not about you … except if you fail to commit and be accountable.