Accountability is a key performance differentiator for today’s organizations. While having accountable team members in place who take responsibility for their actions and understand how they impact others drives better productivity and collaboration, they also provide a measurable financial impact on a business’s bottom line.
Promoting and managing accountability in a remote team, however, poses a number of challenges. While there is no shortage of tools to help these teams collaborate more effectively, it still falls to virtual leaders to emphasize accountability and create a culture that promotes it at every level.
Although accountability is often thought of as admitting mistakes or not blaming others when things go wrong, it actually applies to a much broader range of behaviors. Taking initiative is an important aspect of accountability since it is vital to ensuring that problems are solved and products are completed on time even when it’s not your fault. This fits in with the second part of being accountable, which is accepting responsibility for one’s actions and also for how they impact others. It’s not enough for someone to simply be aware of what they’ve done; they also need to recognize how their actions and behavior create consequences that affect the people around them.
The Accountability Spectrum
Leaders sometimes struggle to assess and recognize the extent of a team member’s accountability, especially in a remote context where direct contact and ongoing interaction is limited. It can be helpful, then, to evaluate accountability based on the following scale.
- Full Accountability: In this case, a team member accepts responsibility for their actions and the consequences of those actions. They do not make excuses and accept the consequences of their actions without fear.
- Partial Accountability: A team member may accept responsibility for their actions without being willing to admit to the consequences. In these cases, they will endeavor to explain what factors influenced their actions in an effort to justify why things happened the way they did. While they’re not necessarily making excuses, they are taking more of a problem solving attitude while trying minimizing their responsibility to some extent.
- Deflecting Accountability: In these cases, the team member may acknowledge they took an action while refusing to take responsibility for it. They justify their actions by expressing frustration with others and deflecting their own responsibility for the resulting consequences.
- No Accountability: Rather than accepting their role in a situation, a team member might instead become extremely defensive and blame others for their own actions and the resulting outcomes. They are willing to go to great lengths to absolve themselves of any responsibility, perhaps even distorting facts and accusing others of ill-intent.
Four Accountability Mistakes
While it’s easy to blame individual team members for not holding themselves accountable, leaders often make a number of mistakes that make it harder for employees to do so. This is especially prevalent in virtual teams, where the lack of visual cues and regular face-to-face contact can lead people to make assumptions about expectations and responsibilities. There are four common accountability mistakes leaders need to guard against.
Mistake #1: Not clearly communicating who will be held accountable for what.
This might seem obvious, but it’s especially common in a remote context for leaders to not specifically identify who is responsible for particular outcomes. They might communicate one thing to one team member, but give a separate team member a different impression during a different interaction. To prevent this from happening, virtual leaders should make it very clear who is responsible for which tasks during calls and meetings that involve the entire team.
Mistake #2: Agreeing on an action, but without any discussion of a completion date.
Ambiguity is the enemy of any team, but it’s especially harmful to a virtual team. When tasks are not connected to specific deadlines, their timeframe for completion is suddenly open to the interpretation of any team member. Not surprisingly, different team members will have different ideas about how to prioritize tasks. If virtual leaders fail to establish clear deadlines, they should not be surprised when those tasks are not completed on time.
Mistake #3: Waiting until a completion date to check on results, or not checking in at all.
Managing accountability is a process that requires proactive involvement. Many leaders falsely assume that so long as they communicate expectations and a target due date, tasks will be completed in an orderly and timely fashion without incident. In reality, however, there are a number of reasons why team members might struggle to meet those expectations. Perhaps they weren’t as clear as the leader thought, or maybe the team member has encountered unforeseen difficulties. Leaders are often hesitant to check in regularly for fear of being labeled a micromanager or communicating a lack of trust. In reality, however, checking in reinforces the importance of the task and provides team members with an opportunity to seek additional information or request assistance if the task proves too difficult.
Mistake #4: Not holding people accountable for missed commitments after the fact.
When performance problems occur, it can sometimes seem easier to handle the problem yourself and let the other person’s failure to deliver to go unaddressed. While the immediate problem typically takes priority, if leaders don’t require team members to take responsibility and fix their problems then they are communicating to the rest of the team that it’s acceptable to “drop the ball”. Even worse, it creates the potential for the same problem to occur again and again. Failure and mistakes are an opportunity to make improvements, but if the problems and obstacles that impede performance are never dealt with, then leaders can expect nothing but the same results in the future.
Managing accountability remotely can be a challenge for virtual leaders, but by making a concerted effort to establish expectations and provide the communication structure that allows them to monitor progress, they can help their team members to be more accountable.
Whether your virtual team needs a complete overhaul or simply wants to continue its track record of success, OnPoint Consulting can help. We offer assessments and interactive training for virtual leaders and their teams based on proven management models and our extensive research about what sets top-performing teams apart.
For more tips on managing accountability in virtual teams, we invite you to browse our program guide. You can also watch our webinar featuring Toni Freeland, director of learning and organizational development at Wolverine Worldwide, who discusses how her global company built a blueprint for virtual team success with OnPoint’s assistance.