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Why peer accountability in teams is so powerful, and how to achieve it

By Becs Knill, Founder and Managing Partner, Roots Transformation


"It's a truth about humanity: hierarchical power is weaker than peer power. Stop expecting the boss to be the enforcer of accountability"

- Robert Sher, Forbes contributor


This is a convincing statement that we've seen to be true time and again. Peer-to-peer accountability is far more effective than the leader taking responsibility for holding everyone in a team to account.


Why? Because, when each team member feels accountable to their peers, they make sure that their part of a 'deal' is done well and on time. They don't want to let anyone down. And, if someone realises that they need help in this situation, they're not afraid to ask for it - knowing that their peers will provide it willingly.


The bottom line is that businesses suffer when peers fail to hold one another accountable. When a member of the team isn't pulling their weight and no one holds them to account, resentment starts to build. Then 'back-stabbing' sets in, endless time is wasted focussing on what isn't being done, and talented individuals eventually leave the organisation.


There's no doubt, then, that peer-to-peer accountability matters. Yet it is also one of the most challenging behaviours for teams to master.


Why is it so hard to do?


Challenging team members about their performance or for failing to meet a deadline isn't something that sits comfortably with many people, and most have limited experience of doing it. They are often fearful of causing offence, creating conflict and disrupting apparent team harmony.


These fears are legitimate to an extent. 'Calling someone out' can quickly become a finger-pointing or blaming exercise if it doesn't come from the right place. And, when people feel under attack, they respond defensively, which can be very damaging. As author and speaker Brené Brown states: "Blame is simply the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability."


The most cohesive and high-performing teams have indeed learned to hold one another to account. But this is only possible because they have first established a high level of trust. Everyone on the team understands that there is positive intent, so they don't take offence when questioned.


It is vital for teams to learn the right way to approach holding one another to account, so that their interactions have a positive outcome rather than disintegrating into unhealthy conflict. It takes practice, and there are potential pitfalls to be negotiated along the way, but it is well worth doing.


What does it look like in practice?


"Holding people to account takes a lot more grit, courage, and self-awareness than raging, attacking and fault-finding" - Melli O'Brien


We need to have honest, open, and empathetic conversations to hold our peers accountable for their actions and to ask for help when we need it. This is about letting them know how their performance or behaviour is negatively impacting the team, but not always waiting until the next team meeting to do so. We must also hold ourselves to account by considering our part in the problem.


Each member of the team must commit to openly challenging one another and discussing differences. At Roots we recommend following these seven simple tips for peer-to-peer accountability.


1. Lower your guard - peer-to-peer accountability can only be truly effective when all members of the team trust each other. Building trust is an ongoing process and you can read more about in my earlier blog, here.


2. Take the lead in asking for help and insight from others. Ask your teammates to help you by pointing out if you let them down, come across in the wrong way, or steamroll their ideas.


3. Avoid the blame game - where there is blame there is no learning, so ask 'why?' before you judge someone's behaviour. Try to understand your teammates' motives and intentions before you point out what they might be doing wrong. Also engage in self-enquiry, asking yourself what you have done to contribute to a problem and what you can do to improve the situation.


4. Assume positive intent and don’t take criticism personally. Realise that the reason your teammate is pointing out your behaviour is because it is harming the team. Therefore, it is in the best interests of the team for you to be made aware of that behaviour so you can make changes accordingly.

5. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Although human beings are hardwired to avoid confrontation and feelings of discomfort, it is essential to ‘feel the fear but do it anyway’ for the sake of the team. In order to resolve conflict, we need to sit through a few awkward moments and have some tough conversations.


6. Give credit where it’s due and don’t be too quick to point out the negatives. Acknowledge when your team members do or say something that makes a positive contribution to team cohesiveness and achieving collective results, rather than only pointing out negative behaviours.


7. Keep your focus on driving the performance of your team forwards so it can achieve the best possible results for the organisation. Always ask yourself if what you’re doing is in service of the team achieving its potential.


In our experience, teams who have taken these steps and mastered peer-to-peer accountability have learned to be good at the following:


  • Pointing out one another's unproductive behaviours without making it about blame

  • Being quick to confront peers about problems in their respective areas of responsibility

  • Questioning one another about their current approaches and methods

  • Offering constructive feedback to one another

  • Making sure that poor performers feel pressure and the expectation of improving

  • Holding all members of the team to the same high standards

  • Consistently following through on promises and commitments


How can the leader help?


Although it isn't the job of the leader to hold the entire team accountable, they should look to encourage peer-to-peer accountability. Leaders should model accountability and help to embed it as part of the company culture.


In practice, this involves leaders demonstrating how they want their team members to behave, including having the necessary tough conversations as issues arise. By letting everyone know that peer accountability is part of the company culture, and modelling the required behaviours, leaders can encourage their teams to communicate issues with each productively.


Dr. Ioan Rees, CEO of Sycol Ltd, summarises it well: 'As the leader, your goal should be to empower your people to communicate concerns with each other directly and respectfully. This involves setting clear expectations and creating a foundation for transparent and fearless communication'.


Helping teams to develop a culture of healthy conflict and peer-to-peer accountability is a key part of our leadership team development programme. To find out more visit www.rootstransformation.com or contact support@rootsltd.co.uk

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