Sticking to lots of small deadlines is at the very core of delivering projects on time. One of the things that we know is that sticking to deadlines and commitments (or being accountable) is hard. It takes some personal maturity to develop the skill of not overcommitting (optimism bias affects us all) and staying on task when new shiny distractions arise; it’s part of being human to struggle with accountability. Project work, by its very definition, requires a team of people to get something big done. Project teams that have high levels of accountability are more productive and generate work at a better quality. Webster’s Dictionary defines accountability as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions.”. It’s linked to an internal locus of control and shape of mind that says ‘I’m OK with you holding me to my word’.  I’ve learned that sometimes the mere act of telling someone else that I’ll do something is enough to motivate me into action, but what really helps me is a deadline. I give myself and those around me deadlines and encourage them to hold me to it so that I get things done. Around 88% of us have needed to work without being co-located over the pandemic.  Working in a dispersed team can play havoc with your personal accountability ability. If you’re up for some suggestions, this post has some that I’ve found helpful; the ones I’ve adopted are a consistent morning routine and setting daily tasks. I also have my goals for the quarter next to me on the wall and my 52-week planner close by to keep me on point. That ability to own parts of a project and get things done contributes to productive project teams achieving their goals. High performing teams have a level of accountability to themselves, to one another and to the purpose of the team or project. They also have a high degree of psychological safety (or trust). Trust that hard things can be said and that this will be taken as contribution to the improvement of the whole rather than to ostracize or victimise the initiator. Trust that other players will do their part, complete their pieces of the work and that it will fit together to make a whole.

Accountability gets a bad rap

Accountability is one of those words that can make people feel very uncomfortable. It has some poor associations with public humiliation and shaming which is not what we’re ever trying to achieve. If you’re trying to improve accountability in a team here are some points to consider around group behaviour:

  1. Onlookers remain silent because they think that in a group, they don’t make much of a difference, when we treat a group without specificity then everyone thinks ‘someone will do that’ and when everyone thinks that no one does. When everyone is responsible no one is. It’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way, you can’t have an action item and no owner for it. Even if the whole group need to contribute, someone needs to take responsibility for collating input.
  2. Every ‘free pass’ adds up. Dan Ariely sums up the tendency that we have, to let ourselves off the hook with the phrase ‘everyone cheats a little bit’. His experiments (4:28 onwards in the linked talk) reveal that when we have a ‘free pass’ to cheat, the results are remarkably consistent; lots of people cheat a little. He calls this a ‘personal fudge factor’ that we allow ourselves. If we give ourselves a free pass to not deliver something that a team member is waiting on to complete their part, then it’s obvious that progress slows, and frustration increases. Clarity about when something is needed and what the next steps are, help each person to better understand the context and dependencies of their work. When there’s a dependency encourage the people involved to work out how the work will be handed off.
  3. Holding other people to account can be a difficult business. Some research shows that it improves the performance of a team when there are no freeloaders but that the person who steps up to do the work of holding others to account suffers. Their likability in the group is compromised; interpersonal discomfort increases for the person who is holding the team to account. Getting used to being in interpersonal discomfort is, like many things, something that gets easier the more you practice it. Sometimes a breakdown is required so that people can gain insight into what’s not working and what’s needed to shift that.

How do we foster accountability in project teams?

The way that we create accountability to the group is through connection. People who feel more personally connected are more committed to the group and the outcomes we’re striving for. Having an external party (like a project manager 😉) to hold the space for the project team to live up to the commitments and promises of the project, shifts the group dynamic. An external person is less sensitive to internal politics and the interpersonal discomfort that can be felt by someone holding themselves and the team to account.

3 Tips to foster accountability in project teams

  1. Defining what’s expected and how we will work. I very much like the way Dr Brene Brown states this in a very simple ‘what’s OK/ not OK’ statements. Clarity of the goals, the scope, the ways we will work all help to foster good working methods and keep us on track with the interdependent work we have in projects.
  2. Reminding ourselves who is relying on us and how that will impact the rest of the project helps to keep the ‘free pass’ tendency under control. It can also work to have a ‘buddy’ to keep you on track. We use action lists and review them regularly with our project team members. It’s an evolution, there is no one perfect way to do this, each project and group of people has its own characteristics.
  3. Compliments and acknowledgements when things go well. Encouragement and support when things are not going to plan. Sometimes discomfort is motivating. Project managers don’t need to personally rescue people all the time and the discomfort of consequences of not playing your part has its lessons too.

To quote Brene Brown [The Gifts of Imperfection p 27]

‘Setting boundaries and holding people accountable is a lot more work than shaming and blaming. But it’s also much more effective.’

Good communication is vital for any project, and the key to communication is to be clear, accountable, and to keep commitments. It’s our job as a project management team to hold ourselves to account for your system to work successfully for you. Just get in contact.