Mutual accountability in teams

We’ve been very privileged to work with some really successful teams in sport. We’ve worked with them in the most pressurised of sporting environments at world championships and Olympic Games. More importantly, we’ve seen them hold their nerve and deliver world-beating performances at these critical occasions.

The lessons we’ve learned from these teams have some useful take away messages that apply in any high performing context, so we thought we’d share them with you to provide some food for thought to see how some of the simple ideas can apply to your teams with a view to helping improve performance.

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Lesson #4 – Taking Mutual Accountability for Team Performance

In the final of our four part series around team performance, we’re focusing in on another simple, but important characteristic that we’ve seen associated with great collective performances.

Accountability for delivering results is a quality we’ve seen take teams to the highest level of performance. Rather than simply being individual accountability for personal roles and goals, we’ve seen this work at its best when all individuals firstly take responsibility for the overall team goal. Secondly, each team member holds themselves and then each other, accountable for delivering the specific actions, attitudes and behaviours that the team requires of the individuals.

This has been expertly summed up by two great authors on the topic of teams in business;

“Members of groups using the team discipline hold themselves individually and mutually accountable. With groups applying the team discipline, it is very difficult (if not impossible) for any one member to fail – only the team can succeed or fail. Team members are not easy on one another in this respect. Yet, they are extremely flexible and adaptable in helping each other to contribute to the fullest extent possible and to develop new skill levels in the process. Indeed, mutual accountability for shared purpose and goals may be the hallmark of the team discipline.” (Katzenbach and Smith. The Discipline of Teams)

It takes some mindset adjusting to begin with, but eventually all individuals on the team think “TEAM PERFORMANCE FIRST, INDIVIDUAL SUCCESS SECOND”. The pride for the individuals becomes refocused primarily towards being involved in creating a memorable collective performance, rather than thinking simply about personal achievements.

As a result of this specific thinking style there are some interesting changes in team leadership. Even though there might be a titular leader, everyone on the team starts to take responsibility for “leading the team”. In this sense, the leadership is concerned with ensuring that everyone wants to provide honest, open, critical and performance focused feedback that is designed on moving the performance of the team forward. However junior or senior, however involved in the performance, the mutual accountability characteristic really does ensure that everyone is sharing knowledge, ideas, experiences and perspectives with a view to making the team a better performing whole.

Another useful characteristic of a team high in mutual accountability is the effectiveness of working together. The individuals recognise where collective performance is dependent on the effective collaboration of themselves with others on the team and as a result, collaborative efforts are typically just that. Rather than being individuals trying to protect their own space, the team high in mutual accountability can be characterised by individuals regularly asking themselves and each other, “how can we work together to get the most out of each other?”

On your teams, how often do you ask each other questions that show you recognise you’re working for the same goal and that by working more effectively together, you’ll be supporting the team more effectively?

The language of these teams also gives away the importance of mutual accountability. Language is collective, with regular reference to “OUR targets”, or “how WE’re performing”, or “the implications of this for US”. This isn’t just wordplay for these teams. The language results directly from the fact that everyone is united towards the same goal and they recognise that collectively they can achieve some great things.

Monitoring the language of team meetings for you, would you get a true sense of team, or are you seeing individuals thinking “Personal performance first, team performance second”?

Are you seeing people asking questions about how WE can perform better together, or is the focus simply on overcoming difficulties that “I’m” having, or issues that are stopping “me” doing “my” job. The simple evaluation of the language can give you a clear insight into how mutually accountable your team is and how tolerant team members are of each other.

You’ll know when you have a truly accountable team when they’re happy to be rewarded collectively, because they know that ultimately the individual reward will be greater, because everyone has exploited the collective expertise around them. Teams lower in mutual accountability will always want to take an individual reward option, because the individual team players will always feel that they can control their own personal reward by just keeping their head down and playing the game by their own rules.

How ready is your team for collective rewards?