April 15, 2009 by
Filed under: Leadership, People, Teamwork 

When working in teams, there is always plenty of talk about responsibility and authority. In most teams, people are formed into a hierarchy where there is accountability and responsibility between people that often flows in one direction. My preference is to think of these two items equally shared by all: everyone has responsibility and accountability to themselves, the team, and the project they are collaborating on.

Hierarchies can be the root of many challenges in teams. So can failure to recognize the breadth of accountability and responsibility that falls on everyone’s shoulders. In his book Teamwork is an Individual Sport, Christopher Avery presents a simple Responsibility Chart, with responsibility above the line, and ‘justify’ and ‘lay blame’ below that line. A simple premise: we should always be operating above that line.

All too often, as teams fall into storming, most of the output from individuals clearly falls below that line. Alice isn’t pulling her weight, or Bob is not treating me with respect. We can generalize this to the form: [someone else] [is or is not] doing something I want them to [not do or do]. Always focused elsewhere.

We need to pull that focus back inside, and ask ourselves what can we do to better manage the relationships within the team. While I don’t necessarily have to like the others on my team, I do need to recognize that we have been put together (as few get the opportunity to pick their teammates in a business environment) to solve a shared problem.

To do so efficiently, we need to get to the point where we can empathize with others, to understand and respect their viewpoints on the issues. Until this is done, we have no way of knowing if the solutions we propose to the group will collide with the values of others. This can take a great deal of patience, particularly for those teams that are not yet at the stage where trust has been built.

When this is the case, the first (and often most difficult step) is to temporarily suspend our own viewpoint, and open ourselves to be able to learn something about someone else. To be able to actively listen and draw out a shared understanding. This is critical, and is in my mind the acid test that determines if we genuinely are taking responsibility for the well being of everyone on the team.

As Avery notes, take accountability for deliverables, and take responsibility for relationships. – JB

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