How to Make Your Peers Accountable When Your Boss Won’t…
by The One Page Business Plan Company, October 7, 2020
Ever get fed up with a boss who doesn’t hold your peers accountable for getting things done? This can become an insidious problem, one that can stall strategic initiatives, produce backstabbing and even sabotage your own career.
In short, the business suffers, as does every productive employee.
But this doesn’t happen in well-managed businesses. And if you think it’s because top team members fear the boss, let me set you straight: That isn’t the case. In the best-managed midsized companies I’ve seen, every executive team member feels accountable to everyone else on the team. That relieves the boss – the CEO – from having to constantly play the “heavy.” In fact, in these companies, the boss rarely needs to act this way. Each team member gets his piece of an important project done on time. And when any team member struggles, he admits to problems openly, asks others for help, and gets it.
The question then might be this: If I have a boss who is lax on enforcing accountability, what can I and my peers on the boss’ management team do about it? The answer is plenty, as I’ll explain. But first let me explain just how bad things can get when a boss has to be a constant enforcer of accountability.
Consider the case of a Los Angeles-based consulting firm whose CEO was charismatic, loved ideas and was addicted to positive energy. His cheerleading was unstoppable, so everyone would nod in agreement and offer little if any debate. But significant projects such as a stronger lead generation process, a new sales management system and new service offering were stalling, month after month. Team members shrugged and promised to try harder. But they made little progress, as certain team members didn’t come through on their promises. Eventually, an exasperated CEO would call an all-day meeting to vent his anger and demand better. Then he would cap the day with cheerleading.
But the CEO had to repeat this process quarter after quarter. Two years later, none of the initiatives had gone very far. The team’s collective effort at increasing revenue had failed.
Most bosses recognize the problem. Some resolve (once again) to be tougher on those who don’t deliver. But they don’t like conflict, so when a leader doesn’t deliver, they avoid it (again). Or they have a conversation but get presented with a basketful of “good reasons” why it couldn’t be done, and let the leader off the hook. Often the boss decides that they never set the leader up for success, and that they should be more involved (or do it themselves) next time. In other cases, after several rounds of poor results, the boss finally gets angry and it turns personal, with shouting and counterproductive hostility.
Sometimes, the boss attacks the problem through planning. He or she gets everyone to write down their plans and establish deadlines and key performance indicators. At face value, things appear much clearer, with individual responsibilities defined. But as the months tick by, deadlines are still missed. Crucial cross-functional projects find themselves begging for resources, and lag. High-performing leaders (and the boss) ask themselves, “What is the point of all these deadlines and plans if nobody really cares about sticking to them?”
The Team Must Use Its Power
It’s a truth about humanity: Hierarchical power is weaker than peer power. Stop expecting the boss to be the enforcer of accountability. Members of high-performing teams hold each other accountable. The athletes on an Olympic team don’t perform highly because they worry that their coach will hold them accountable. They strive to do their best because every player is accountable to every other player. Failure by one lets every other team member down.
It is difficult work to move a group of people from a disempowered “I’ll do what the boss tells me to do” state to a cohesive, high-performance team. However, these five steps have made many teams greatly increase their self-accountability:
1. Group to Team. The boss must choose team members, pull them together and identify their common goal. It must be discussed and accepted by the team, and each person must understand everyone’s role and why everyone must succeed individually in order to win as a team. Don’t assume this is obvious. I’ve seen a c-suite team meet for a year, but still question if they were the top team and what specific project they were supposed to deliver. (Hint: the project was growing the company to the next level). It can’t just be in the boss’s head.
2. Trust. Teams are powerful in part because teammates help each other when they need it. For that to happen, every teammate must be trusting enough to ask for help. Patrick Lencioni, in his best-selling book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, calls it vulnerability-based trust. He considers it the most fundamental behavior of a cohesive team. Teams that trust one another ask each other for help, admit mistakes (and get help fixing them) and believe that everyone has the best intentions. They believe in team success over personal success. Selfish and/or paranoid members can poison efforts to build powerful vulnerability-based trust.
3. Conflict. With a high level of trust, teams can have productive conflict around business strategy and tactics. Call it debate, if that’s more comfortable, but it can be (and should be) quite passionate. The only way to get the benefit of more than one brain is through constructive conflict. Just as important, the team should commit to a final decision only after everyone on the team has participated in a debate (and expressed their arguments and truly understood other perspectives). I know, humans are kind of strange; “working up a sweat” in a debate is somehow is a crucial step in moving forward.
4. Clarity and Exposure. Finally, the team is ready for a detailed operating plan, which is essential. Since they have bonded and committed to a course of action that will help the company win, the next step is detailing who will do what by when, and make sure that everyone on the team can see everyone else’s progress. Jim Horan, author of The One Page Business Plan, who articulated a simple yet clear approach to clarity which continues to be powerful today.
5. Accountability. The stage is now set for peer accountability. The team has spent time bonding, developing trust, debating the right course of action, and forming a detailed plan with clear responsibilities. The first step in accountability is helping a teammate when they are slipping. Good teammates, when receiving help, have a sense of obligation to do their best, and to repay that help over time. Good teammates feel regretful that they need help, and this pressure pushes them to step it up. Of course, the boss must stand ready to hold their team accountable when peer pressure fails, but the fact that the team believes the boss will act makes it far less likely to happen. It is a deterrent, not an everyday occurrence.
For many years, one distributor in Texas ran from the top down, telling the management team what to do. A new CEO came in and tried the same approach, but he wasn’t as dictatorial as the founder had been, and profitability tanked towards zero. It felt like a corporate version of whack-a-mole, with the CEO doing the whacking. The CEO changed his approach and helped the team understand the goal—a healthy level of profit to fuel reinvestment. Trust had been strong, except for one leader. After that leader was dismissed, trust and cohesiveness grew, allowing productive conflict to flourish. Their monthly meetings were interesting, with everyone jumping in with opinions and data. Their One Page Planning process created clarity, and within a year, profitability recovered dramatically (from 0.4% to 3.5%). Projects got done and changes were implemented on schedule. By year three, revenue growth had tripled and profits stood at 6%.
It Is Not Easy
Many managers feel like it’s not their place to hold peers accountable. It takes skill and tact to hold peers accountable in a respectful way. The boss should make sure the team knows how to do it right, and make sure the entire team knows that team accountability is part of the company culture, not a misguided attempt at control. One way we help our clients include this in their company culture is to use The One Page Planning and Performance System.
Some bosses are so conflict-averse that they won’t consider embracing their role around accountability, even when the team’s efforts fail. Frankly, without this, having a high-performance team is impossible. Even if the boss is unwilling or unable to build accountability, improvement is still possible. Leaders can connect with peers who would welcome accountability partnerships and put this approach in place with them. If only part of the leadership team is willing, that team might have to focus on smaller projects that only involve peers who are aligned with this approach to accountability. But something is better than nothing! Leaders could also implement this approach with the team they lead.
As soon as companies leave the early start-up mode, teamwork becomes an essential element to growing. Running a midsized (or larger) business with a hub-and-spokes approach will kill growth. Leaders should stop waiting for the CEO to hold the team accountable. If the CEO won’t shape a culture of team accountability from the top, they should either leave the company or look to take small steps by partnering with those peers who will “play.” Start with small projects and get peers comfortable with a new way to work. Make the shift to team accountability and reap the benefits.