4 Steps to Creating a Culture of Accountability on Your Team

We’ve all had the experience of meeting someone who causes us to see things we already know with a whole new level of clarity and focus. This happens to me ALL the time! I am blessed to know some very smart, intuitive and interesting people, and the mere act of talking to them and listening to them causes me to grow exponentially.

This happened to me again yesterday. I had lunch with David Silverstein, the founder and CEO of BMGI, a global consulting firm, and Gayle Howard, vice president of human resources at BMGI.

I shared with them information about my presentation, “The Business of Football: Strategies from the gridiron that will grow your business,” with a focus on the NFL’s amazing capacity to quickly build trust between players, coaches and business leadership.

Silverstein pulled out a pen and drew a 4-step cycle diagram that perfectly captured the essence of the accountability model that NFL teams execute so effectively.

Silverstein said, “Every leader wants to see more accountability out of his or her team, but what does that really mean? If I say, ‘Okay, you’re accountable for the national debt’ do you now feel accountable for it? Of course not. You’re not in control of the national debt, and you don’t have any tools that would allow you to be in control of it.”

Step 1: In order to accountable for something, the person must first be in control of it.

But “saying” that someone is in control is not enough.

Often a manager will say, “Okay Barbara, you’re in control of this, and I’m going to hold you accountable for achieving it.” But the manager doesn’t actually give Barbara the tools and resources she’ll need to truly deliver the outcome. The manager, while tacitly giving control to Barbara, will actually continue to micromanage the process, so Barbara never feels empowered to act.

Step 2: You must equip your team members with the tools and resources they need to achieve the goal and then step back and empower them to act.

But that can be hard, because what happens if you step back and Barbara starts making mistakes? Well, if Barbara is the right person for the job, and you’ve equipped her with the tools and resources that she’ll need to achieve the job, then you have to allow Barbara to “fail forward.”

Step 3: You must trust Barbara.

Of course, there’s going to be a learning curve. Of course, she’s going to make mistakes. You have to trust that Barbara will give her best effort, that she’s going to learn from her mistakes, and that she’s going to develop a high level of competency and deliver great results.

But how do you trust someone? If you say, “Okay, Barbara. I trust you.” Does that mean you actually trust her? Of course not. Trust is something that has to be developed over time.

As Stephen M.R. Covey writes in his book, The Speed of Trust, “Simply put, trust means confidence. The opposite of trust—distrust—is suspicion. When you trust people, you have confidence in them—in their integrity and in their abilities. When you distrust people, you are suspicious of them—of their integrity, their agenda, their capabilities, or their track record.”

Step 4: The only way to build trust is to increase capabilities and opportunities.

In Silverstein’s cycle drawing he had Accountability at the top, Empowerment at the 9 o’clock position, Trust at the 6 o’clock position and Capability at the 3 o’clock position. He said, “Capability is the only place you can enter the cycle.”

You can’t just jump in at the Accountability phase and hold people accountable because they’re not empowered yet. You can’t jump in at the empowerment phase, because you don’t trust them and they don’t trust you.

“Capabilities is where you enter,” Silverstein said. “You have to develop your people. Develop their capabilities. Give them training. Give them opportunities to prove themselves. As they demonstrate their capabilities, they start to win your trust, which leads to empowerment, which then leads to accountability.”

This is exactly what happens in the NFL. Coaches teach their players and then put them on the fields in practices to run plays. When a young wide receiver makes a great catch in practice, he’s demonstrating his capabilities to all of his teammates and the coaches. That causes people to trust him.

That trust then leads the coach to put the player on the field during a game, and when the player performs well there, the trust grows to the point at which the player is empowered to improvise. The receiver was supposed to pass underneath the safety on his crossing route, but he felt the safety had run up to far, so he went behind him and it was the perfect thing to do.

It’s not until players feel empowered to act that they will use their natural talent to improvise and make the plays called by the coaches work even better. This is where players enter the realm of accountability. Their actions are a combination of the plays called by the coach and their own judgment about how to best execute those plays based on the information in front of them.

Remember, they can’t be truly accountable until they feel empowered to improvise. They won’t feel empowered to improvise until after they’ve earned the trust of the coaches and their teammates. And they can’t earn the trust of anyone until they’ve proven their capabilities.

So Sliverstein makes perfect sense when he says the ONLY thing you can do to start creating a culture of accountability on your team is to invest in developing the capabilities of your people.

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