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How can I build a culture of accountability in my team, where people feel comfortable asking for help when they need it, and where they are committed to meeting their deadlines and delivering on their commitments?

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    By acting like you believe it. By trusting your people. By recognizing that when commitments can not be delivered upon, it is often NOT the fault of the people missing the target. By really understanding and operating on the principle of Minimum Deliverable Product. By relegating waterfall development to the waste-bin of history where it belongs.
    – keshlam
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 0:36
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    Oh yeah: and by being accountable to them, and defending them from unreasonable requests and policies. Trust, and ability to rely on it, goes both ways.
    – keshlam
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 1:48
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    How do you know they need help without asking for it? I have seen this many times. The things are solved in a different way than the managers would have done it by them self and the answer is just ask for help, while the reality is that if the managers have a strong opinion on this, they should have made that clear before the team start working on it. The message should be "I don't trust you to find the right way, so ask me first"
    – CrazyFrog
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 7:35
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    What happens now if they ask for help? Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 1:40

9 Answers 9

65

How can I build a culture of accountability in my team, where people feel comfortable asking for help when they need it, and where they are committed to meeting their deadlines and delivering on their commitments?

Well, it seems trivial, but the first step is to actually make sure it is "their commitments". The only way to achieve this is to grab a task and ask your team when they can deliver it. Any kind of external wrangling, like "this needs to be done by Monday 12:30" is bound to fail producing any accountability, because you can only be accountable for something you control.

And as a second step, make sure they plan their work so there is always room. If something needs 5 working days, don't take those 5 days and say "oh okay, so I can expect it in a week from now". No. You can expect that only if you ask them to stop doing everything and only focus on this. You basically told them to not help out anywhere, not be friendly and forthcoming, but duck, take their heads down and only and really only work on this. Don't do that. Leave room. Leave room to be friendly, help each other out and be a good team. That only works if they don't have a looming deadline that can only be made if they tell everyone else off.

So to summarize: get a commitment from them on their work. Don't interfere. And make sure if they commit to something, that there is enough time left for other activities. People will need help, get sick, want a day off spontanously, or maybe just aren't as productive the week their beloved dog died. Don't plan for best case, plan for worst case and let your team surprise you how much better they can do.

However, I will second the other answer: get professionals. You will still need to do what I wrote above, but it is much much easier in a professional team. Don't be shy to pick only people who work well and who want to work that way.

36

There are good answers already, all of which make important points, but there is another aspect which I'd like to cover:

Be Accountable as their Leader

I see a lot of organisations of all kinds (private business, charity, Government department etc) discussing 'how do we created a culture of....' whatever kind it is they want. Very rarely do any of these leaders seem to consider that the first step to building a culture is to live that culture themselves.

So if you want a culture of Accountability, demonstrate that you are accountable. If you forget to schedule a meeting, own up to that. No excuses, no reasons why you forgot, own it as you expect them to, and make sure you do better as you expect them to do better. If you say you will discuss advancement opportunities, you'd better make sure that you do. If you say you won't call them in to work on weekends, then don't.

For context, I've met leaders who insist they want a 'no-blame' culture, and then throw blame around. I've met leaders who insist their organisation should have a sharing culture where everyone knows what the organisation is working towards, then hoard secrets like there is no tomorrow. Be part of the change you want to see. Make your team want to live up to your example.

Note that this is not instead of anything already suggested in the good answers from Kilisi, nvoigt or DavidT, this is something that I believe you should be doing as well as all those things.

9

It really comes down to two points:

  1. Ensure that the team/company is a desirable place to work.
  2. Set clear expectations of what is required on this team.

What is desirable will vary from person to person, but you can make sure the basics are covered:

  • Salary is competitive.
  • Workload is reasonable.
  • Workplace is safe.
  • Required tools are fit for purpose.
  • Work is well planned.
  • Work is divided fairly.
  • If overtime is required, you give as much notice as possible.
  • You are meeting with the team members regularly to discuss their career goals and motivations.
  • ...

With respect to conveying expectations, I would suggest that you:

  • Clearly specify what outcome is desired.
  • Convey the impact on the company/team, if the outcome isn't achieved - people need to understand the priority.

Then move on to what contribution is expected from the individual in order to achieve the outcome. You may want to look at SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) to ensure it's clear to both the team member and yourself what are the final result you are expecting (and when).

If a team is dysfunctional I have generally found that "Achievable" is the point I need to focus on most, since the individual needs to be able to show that they did their job. If teamwork is required that they did their part - even if others didn't.

The reason I started with a desirable place to work - is that if people don't care about the job, it's unlikely they will put in much effort to meet your goals.

0
9

How can I build a culture of accountability in my team, where people feel comfortable asking for help when they need it, and where they are committed to meeting their deadlines and delivering on their commitments?

Exactly what practices, or patterns of thought, does such a culture consist of?

Few people fail to ask for help if they know they need it and know it is easily available.

In cases where they don't, I couldn't imagine the cause being diagnosed as "insufficient accountability" - it's more likely to be either a personality trait, or an organisation that causes an excess of competition or insecurity amongst colleagues.

And people naturally commit to deadlines when their work is predictable and the deadline corresponds to a reasonable pace of work. And they reject deadlines when management are simply plucking figures out the air, or when they are trying to drive an unreasonable pace.

The same is true of delivering on commitments. If they aren't being compelled to make unreasonable commitments they cannot keep, then most people make only commitments they expect they can keep - bearing in mind there could be inexperience or error.

So the general secret to a "culture of accountability" defined in terms of the three behaviours mentioned, is avoid provoking competition amongst staff, don't force the pace of work, and don't force people to commit to things they can't be sure to achieve.

6

Lead by example.

What you are asking never appears out of a vacuum. There must be a leader that successfully cultivates this in the team.

First, communicate with your team the exact expectations. Tell them what your goal is for the team. The reputation you want the team to have. What the end result looks like. Explain the culture you want for the team. You will need your team on board with this culture.

To build accountability you need other ingredients in the environment as well. Accountability in the team will require integrity, trust, and for you to be accountable as well.

You must hold yourself to a higher standard of accountability than you wish for your team to express. You must also express a high level of integrity. Say what you do and do what you say. Your team must be able to trust that what you say is what is going to happen.

If you want to be welcoming to questions being asked, then at no point can you discourage questions being asked. This means that any form of denigration of questions must be avoided or discouraged. You also have to ensure that these questions are properly addressed and not being pushed off. So your availability to your team must be clear and accessible. If you cannot answer every mundane request for help that comes your way, for whatever reason, then build an effective escalation process that allows the team to help itself on the easier things. This means you must allow the team to have agency over itself in some areas.

Regarding making realistic commitments and sticking to them, that is a more technical challenge. It is highly dependent on the skill and experience of your team in combination with what type of expectations are included.

You must place high expectations on your team. Borrowing from a different sport; aim small, miss small. The expectations have to be realistic, but specific, and reflective of the culture you're trying to express. You don't have to be tough on meeting them at first, but there has to be some sort of incentive structure on them setting the right commitments and then sticking to them. Missed targets, be it over or under the commitment, should be followed up with a postmortem or feedback discussion. Try to guide the team to coming up with why they missed their commitment and work on methods of getting them more accurate.

Once a commitment is made, you must support your team in meeting it. If you don't support it, neither will they.

Also, it is important that the KPI or metrics the team must uphold mesh with the expectations your team has. You cannot always control what type of employee you have in your team. It is very rare to have a team of exclusively people who want to go above and beyond. Most teams have a mix of ambition and career goals. So your metrics, KPIs, and expectations must be shaped in a manner that the people who are only trying to check the boxes for "Meets Expectations" will actually meet your cultural expectations as well.

Honestly, the biggest hurdle is going to be your own personal attitude adjustment and commitment to this culture. More or less, what you want must be inspired, not demanded.

5

There are two things that are missing in other answers, or at least needs to be said more directly:

  1. Don't punish them for what you want them to do.
  2. Make sure things are possible.

If you want them to be comfortable asking for help, you need to ensure that they won't miss out on their bonuses, won't get flagged as troublemakers, that it won't downgrade their quarterly evaluation et cetera. And you must apply the same to people who are supposed to give that help. If someone spends a day providing help other employee asked for, don't count this day as unproductive, and don't count it as them missing deadline, if they missed it by that one day, unless time for help was already allotted separately.

That leads to the second point - make it possible. If someone needs X days to do a job, and the deadline is in X days, he won't provide help to other team members, obviously. If the deadline is in X-1 days, or deadline is set before any research could even be done about what X really is, of course it will be treated as mere suggestion and something that can't be taken seriously. If you will commit someone to do something, it'll be your commitment, not theirs, not really. Give your team members time and tools to do what is expected of them - including helping others, emergency bugfixes, making that one quick report for the CEO no one could predict will be needed, and so on. And give them power to say something won't work, time-wise or for any other reason, without fear of being punished. To the contrary, you should thank them for heads-up.

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The one key thing for "meeting their deadlines and delivering on their commitments" are deadlines based on sufficiently good estimates for the amount of work.

If the job is to put cereal boxes into shelves in the supermarket, or to mount tires on cars, or to write invoices for lawns mowed, the estimates can be quite exact. If the job is to write an advertising concept, or to program a software feature, or to sell a product to a single customer, the estimates will be fuzzy. If you insist on using estimates as deadlines, then either you have to allow for a significant risk buffer (and have the team over-deliver most of the time), or you have to treat them as what they are. Estimates.

So what can you do if external factors (a contract, an upcoming trade show, ...) impose a deadline?

  • Get clear in your own mind, and then communicate to the team, what is a must-have and what is a nice-to-have. Allow for plenty of risk time on the must-haves and use the buffer time for nice-to-haves after the essential things are done.
  • Spend more time and effort on refining the estimates. In the example of filling supermarket shelves above, you could have a worker do 5% of the work, taking the exact time, how much time was spent carrying and how much stacking, and then survey the shelves of the 95% to find if the distances are longer or shorter, if the shelves are higher or lower, etc.
    Doing so will decrease the total productivity, of course. More time spent talking, less time spent doing.
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This is one of the things that companies hope to achieve by giving their employees shares in the company.

Just paying people for their time doesn't give them a lot of motivation to make the company succeed. They know that any extra profit will just go to the owner and shareholders, while they'll be paid just enough to prevent them leaving.

When the workers get a share of the profit, they're more focused on the things that matter to the company.

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  • Why would they be paid any more in profit than they would in salary? Any company with the attitude of paying "just enough" will skimp on profit just like they skimp on salary.
    – Steve
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 20:03
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    I'd hope employees are more informed about how profits work. They don't all go to shareholders. Amazon has spent 20+ years always reinvesting profits into the business.
    – Rob Grant
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 22:40
  • @Steve - there needs to be a chance to be paid more. If the company pays "just enough", employees will do "just enough". You have to align the incentives with the outcome you want. Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 8:23
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    @RobinBennett, the problem with the idea is always with the measurement. Most profit arises from a cooperative combination of staff, and the resentment or perversion of incentive caused by poor designs of measurement, together with the overheads of detailed formal systems of measurement, can easily lead to worse performance than if everyone was doing "just enough" in a reasonably cooperative and unforced way. Moreover, the company usually ends up granting "just enough" profit rather than a surfeit, leading to "ratebreakers" being ostracised, job demarcation, and other harmful strategies.
    – Steve
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 13:22
  • Getting a profit share in the company would only frustrate me. Because the profit of the company depends almost completely on factors I have absolutely no control over: Upper management decisions, external market factors and the performance of every single other employee in the company.
    – Philipp
    Commented Oct 27, 2023 at 6:46
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How can I build a culture of accountability in my team

By hiring professionals with good work ethics.

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    You don't really have a way of knowing their ethics before situations arrive. You can try to deduce, but when the time comes they might just bail
    – Or4ng3h4t
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 14:11
  • The team has to want to one-up each other. You didn't finish the sentence... and by firing those who don't Wow, that sounds.....horribly toxic. I think being fired from that would be quite a relief.
    – ThaRobster
    Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 7:59

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