HR & Management

As in the military, accountability is crucial for high performance in business

5 min read

02 January 2018

Mutual accountability is the hallmark of a high performing team. Members recognise that taking joint responsibility for their actions and achievements leads to trust, a fortified commitment to goals and a happy ship. Taking a look at the military would give you a better look at how it works.

Building an environment where people feel mutually accountable is not always easy. Colleagues lean on others, become complacent and when it all goes wrong, try to shift the blame elsewhere. That clearly wouldn’t be a tenable situation in the military, where in high-stakes circumstances, accountability is crucial.

In our new book, The Leadership of Teams, former British army officer and Sandhurst instructor Dominic Mahoney emphasises the important role reviewing and reflecting has to play in building accountability. After a training exercise, or a real engagement with the enemy, the team will always review what happened.

The questions will be based on the following: What did we set out to do? What happened? What did we learn? What will we do better next time?

It’s a practice that is built into all military training – and one that Mahoney believes could be usefully replicated by business. He believes teamwork in the corporate world is often sloppy, partly because teams are “wrapped up in cotton” and unlike in the military, mistakes don’t usually have big consequences.

So what can the business world learn from the military about creating empowered teams where people feel both individually and jointly responsible for what they do and how they behave?

Make it integral

If you want people to take responsibility, accountability has to be an integral part of an organisation’s culture and DNA. It needs to become an integral part of “the way we do things around here”.

This is particularly important in the intimate environment of an SME, where a lack of trust or motivation is felt company-wide and can have a long-lasting impact. Team leaders have to take responsibility for creating a culture where accountability is a natural process for both individuals and the team as a whole, just as it is in the British Army.

Encourage discussion and involvement

If you want to inspire commitment, it is important to hear what the team itself has to say. Be sure to allow an opportunity for discussion about targets and goals. Allow people to contribute their ideas and thoughts, so they feel truly empowered and feel they have the authority to act in relation to their responsibilities.

Contextualise

Make sure people are fully aware of the organisations’ purpose and vision, so that they can understand the role of their team and see how they personally fit in. This should be a constant dialogue, where people are kept up to date and encouraged to discuss and share ideas and opinions.

Be clear about expectations

Be clear about your expectations of both the individuals in the team and the team as a whole. This includes being clear about consequences for both achievement, and, most importantly, non-achievement. It is at this stage that there is a lot of scope for misunderstanding, so be explicit when stating your expectations

Setting targets and goals

Clarify individual goals, targets and objectives. Ensure everyone fully understands their role and responsibilities and is aware that they will be held accountable personally for achieving their own contribution as well as the overall team goal.

Review

Frequent reviews of both the process and progress against targets are vital for creating a culture of accountability and building trust and mutual respect. One idea implemented by the military is to introduce “bite-sized” reviews at the end of each team meeting, to go quickly over lessons learned and to ensure better performance next time.

Feedback

Feedback is critical to performance in the Army – the process as to whether someone is performing is constant and is accepted as part of the way the team works. This comes immediately after the performance, not just in a yearly review.

As a leader, you should both give and be open to receiving feedback, as well as encouraging peer feedback within the team. Feedback is often perceived as something negative, so be ready to give appreciative and positive feedback as well as the so-called “constructive” type.

Fiona Elsa Dent is professor practice and adjunct at Ashridge Executive Education, part of Hult International Business School.

The Leadership of Teams: How to develop and inspire high-performance teamwork, Mike Brent and Fiona Elsa Dent, part of the Bloomsbury/Hult series, 2017.

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