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Holding team members accountable

6 tips for teams struggling with this common problem.
4 min read
Failing to hold someone accountable is ultimately an act of selfishness. quote by Patrick Lenicioni

What do we mean by accountability?

Accountability means having the responsibility and authority to act. It also means accepting the natural and logical consequences for the results of those actions or inactions. It’s delivering on commitments and taking responsibility for an outcome.

The team must be accountable as well as each member. Holding another team member accountable is not a function only of the team’s leader; it’s a shared responsibility. If your team struggles with this, you are not alone; many teams find this difficult.

If you’re familiar with DiSC® you might expect people with strong S-style preferences to have a hard time with confronting others, but almost all of us—no matter what our personality—find it hard at times. We’ve been taught to be polite. Our organization’s culture might foster the behavior of “go along to get along.”

“Managers, especially junior managers, often tread lightly in group settings. … They err on the side of politeness and conformity. … But the price of silence can be costly. It can create a false sense of harmony and consensus—and it can cause projects to fail. And despite what many people may think, some managers don’t drop the ‘violent politeness’ when they rise up the ranks; in fact, if they don’t address the issue early, it will follow them into the C-suite.”
Gianpiero Petriglieri, in
“Why Work Is Lonely”, Harvard Business Review

How can teams encourage accountability?

1. Make goals clear

Does your team know why it exists? Can each member express the team’s goals? Do you share a vision of the results you expect to achieve? Does your team exist just because it seems like it should? Has it outlived its purpose?

Have you answered the first question Patrick Lencioni introduces in The Advantage: Why do we exist? Can we all agree on this?

Effective leaders share a strong vision with their teams and have done the work necessary to bring the team into alignment with that vision. Your team’s goals should align with your organization’s. This might seem obvious, but teams can get off track fairly easily.

2. Make standards clear

Does everyone have a clear understanding of their individual roles and responsibilities and those of the other members? Have you set ground rules for the team? Have you answered Lencioni’s second and third questions: How do we behave? What do we do?

Your team has its own culture. Is it the culture you want? Is it supportive of all team members? If your team members have taken an Everything DiSC® assessment, you might want to review and discuss the Everything DiSC Group Culture Report. If someone is feeling marginal to the rest of the group, that might be preventing their peak performance.

Do members understand the consequences of not taking responsibility or taking on more than they should? Are communication channels working effectively? Should communication standards be reexamined?

Is your team’s responsibility interdependent with another team or teams? If so, how and when do you influence each other? Are roles and standards clear across teams?

Make sure you agree on who is ultimately accountable for the results of your team. In some organizations it is the entire team; in others it is the leader or the chair. To whom are you accountable?

3. Check in regularly

Schedule regular reviews of progress of the team and of the individual team members. This is a time for celebrating reaching milestones and for identifying and solving problems. It’s a time for making new commitments. Perhaps less frequently, it’s a time for analyzing available performance data.

Healthy teams foster a climate where members can speak freely and admit to mistakes and anxieties. Everyone worries more about meeting team goals than about making a name for themself.

Mistakes and struggles are learning opportunities and signals of deeper issues. Commit to the five whys (an iterative interrogative technique) and be proactive about digging into problems and finding solutions as a team. Focus on the future, your team values, and your team goals.

4. Make necessary resources available

If someone doesn’t have the time, equipment, information, or other resources necessary for achieving results, you can’t hold them accountable for poor results. Leaders of teams are responsible for obtaining and distributing resources appropriately.

When setting expectations for team performance, it’s important to ask the team if they feel that they can meet those expectations. What are ways the organization can make it easier for team members to do their jobs? Set the team up for success.

5. Address slacking

If your team has clear standards, anyone not meeting them will know it. But it still needs to be addressed as a group. What is the root of the problem? Is there a lack of trust, commitment, or understanding? Is it a personnel problem or a process problem? Is it an ongoing problem? Is it clear that good intentions aren’t rewarded, but results are?

While we want to avoid direct blame and punishment in order to build a culture of accountability, it’s also important that everyone understands the consequences of not meeting standards. Does your team have the ability to remove nonperformers? If not, who does?

6. Build commitment and build trust

Accountability is just one of the behaviors of a cohesive team. It’s built upon and also builds trust and commitment. It’s easier to challenge someone when the environment feels safe, when people assume good intent, and when everyone has already committed to behaviors and actions.

Can you imagine this scenario? You notice a colleague texting and say, “Hey, I thought we agreed not to use our phones while in meetings” and in response you hear “Yeah, you’re right. I’ll put it away.” Then the meeting continues without any more discussion or attention to the problem.

Can you also imagine this scenario? You’ve waited an extra day for something you need for a report. Your teammate promised to have that to you, so you remind them and ask if there’s a problem. Perhaps a family member fell ill or perhaps your request was lost in a poorly communicated request. No angry words were exchanged, just a discussion to clarify the problem and how to avoid it in the future.

Trust and commitment can make this type of accountability-related interaction on teams possible.


Kristeen Bullwinkle

Steeped in Everything DiSC since 2010. Strongly inclined CD style. Leadership style and EQ mindset: resolute. Believes strongly in the serial comma.

Certifications from Wiley:
Everything DiSC, The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team

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