Accountability is a willingness to accept responsibility or be answerable for one’s actions and decisions. Unfortunately, embracing accountability can be intimidating, conjuring images of reprimand after something has gone wrong (“Who’s responsible for this?!”).

While the experience may be uncomfortable at times, claiming accountability can one of the most important decisions in our personal and professional lives. Accountability is powerful because it orients individuals and teams toward taking personal responsibility (“How can I help achieve this goal?”), versus releasing responsibility to others (“That’s not my job.”).

“We all had a job to do. We all held each other accountable. We all stepped up in our leadership roles. We [took] nothing for granted that year.”

Vince Wilfork, New England Patriots, on winning Super Bowl XLIX

How to cultivate accountability

How do you pragmatically develop accountability within a team to sustain high performance?

Ensure a baseline of integrity

Accountability depends highly on integrity. Team members will not be motivated to be accountable if they collaborate with people who say one thing but do another. In fact, team members may be incentivized to deflect accountability and shield themselves when a gap in integrity persists.

Related: High-Performing IT Teams: The need for communication and trust in complex environments

Remove resistance to accountability

The three most common reasons people resist accountability are: a lack of control, a lack of desire, and avoidance of risk. Here are the excuses you may hear from a team and how to overcome each.

1. “We would own this, but it’s out of our control.”

It is hard to be accountable when a team feels they are impacted by issues they cannot fix. Quantify the challenges outside your control and focus on leveraging influential relationships. Here’s how:

  • Concisely tell the story (as a team) of the top 3 challenges outside of your control
  • Work with project sponsors to drive urgency within their networks on key challenges
  • Bring surrounding stakeholders into team meetings/cadences, emphasizing these challenges
  • Encourage each team member to build relationships with surrounding teams and stakeholders to bring transparency to key issues

Related: First Impressions Matter: How to introduce a new project so your team knows how to succeed

2. “We would own this, but some team members don’t really want to.”

A team cannot gain traction when certain individuals do not want to take accountability. Seek to understand, engage, and act on feedback.

  • Apply active listening techniques to understand the resistant team members’ perspectives
  • Engage every team member through directed feedback exercises (2-3 sticky notes per team member, encouraging feedback from the resistant team members)
  • Agree on the top 2-3 priorities as a team and act on the feedback

3. “We would own this, but we don’t want a target on our backs.”

Some teams sense that taking on ownership is too politically risky or may generate negative repercussions.

  • If this is true, ask yourself, “Do I really want to work in a place that discourages me, covertly or otherwise, from taking accountability?”
  • Weigh the risks of taking accountability versus the benefits from doing so. While it may be safer to not take accountability for now, you may place yourself in a comprising position in the future.
  • Proceed on the path that allows you to maintain your integrity and positively impact the situation at hand. If things turn out poorly despite acting with accountability, it may be a wake-up call that you are in the wrong environment.

Celebrate individuals who take accountability

Publicly recognizing teammates who own up to their actions when their plan fails is a powerful way to reinforce the desired behaviors. Openly discuss failures, ask teams to identify lessons learned, and thank people for demonstrating ownership of both the positive and negative outcomes of their decisions.

As they observe the distinction between the value of a person and the success or failure of a task, teams will be increasingly comfortable inviting critical feedback without feeling personally judged. More critical feedback leads to more successful outcomes and consistently higher performance.

Accountability is critical for any team to enjoy consistent, rather than random, success. Accountability is closely tied to our ability to build relationships and actively listen to understand others’ perspectives. Start with a consistent and transparent demonstration of accountability. Over time, the expression of this accountability develops the team’s resiliency and fortifies their status as a high performing team.