The "I" in "Team"

Where do we draw the line between holding the team accountable, as opposed to individuals within the team?

Contrary to the popular motivational poster—“There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’”—teams are, in fact, made up of individuals. In time, your team might “gel” to the point where they finish each other’s sentences and have their own vocabulary and culture, but in the end, each is still an individual with their own interests, concerns, and goals.

This question of “team” versus “individual” accountability is an important one, because it will drive much of the dynamics between you and your team over time. If you hold the team accountable for the actions (or inactions) of an individual or hold an individual accountable for the actions (or inactions) of the team as a whole, you risk creating resentment. A popular definition of “stress” is being held accountable for things not under your control. For example, not knowing if your apartment lease will be renewed is stressful. Worrying about how you will react when a team member gives you bad news is in fact reflective consideration (because you can control your reaction).

A manager’s accountability: Andy Grove (the former CEO of Intel) used to say that the output of a manager is essentially the output of their team, plus the output of any teams they were influencing. This means that if your team does well, you’ve done well—and if the team does poorly, so did you. Often, if the team does poorly, the snap reaction is to reach out and immediately seize control over the team’s activities and outputs and “do it all correctly.” Stop! This is a critical moment in your development—giving in leads to micromanagement. Resist. Instead, start exploring why the team did poorly and fix those problems instead. This will often require a deep connection to each one of your team members, which only underscores the importance of those one-on-one meetings.

Thus, realistically, the question of team vs. individual accountability boils down to one of control. Over what things does an individual have control, as opposed to those things that the team as a whole controls? We’ll cover when to the hold the whole team accountable and when to hold an individual accountable in the next two lessons.

Appropriate peer pressure: Contrary to the popular belief spawned by many grade-school–aimed public service announcements, peer pressure is not always a bad thing. Certainly, if taken too far, it can create resentment and fracture the team dynamic permanently, but if the team is to reach “high performing” levels, a certain amount of peer accountability is a good thing. Listen very carefully to your team when they are interacting in front of you or describing interteam conversations. If they appear to be holding each other accountable and working to help each other meet that accountability, you have the right levels of peer pressure. If team members are blaming and refusing to help one another, the team has fractured. The key will be, as is often the case, psychological safety within the team—the safer someone feels, the quicker they will admit they are falling behind, for example, and ask for help from their peers. It will then be your job to listen carefully for when the team as a whole is collectively behind and to get them assistance, reduce their workload, or jump in to help directly.

While we discuss this, by the way, keep in mind the classic “forming, storming, norming, performing” cycle that teams go through, and in particular the second step in that cycle. Churn and conflict are normal when a team is first formed and as people sort out where each of them fits within the team. This kind of conflict is normal and necessary.

Also keep in mind that some activities are critical and some are just everyday. Failing an everyday activity is probably healthy growth; failing a critical one demands immediate correction. It’s part of your job to make it clear to the team which activities are which.

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