The Decline of Peer Accountability

Workplace culture and environments are experiencing dramatic shifts as companies adapt to the impacts of COVID-19. With an increase in remote work, though, there is a risk that the greatest form of accountability will be diminished: peer accountability. 

As it is, peer accountability has declined over the last several decades as U.S. manufacturing jobs have declined. Indeed, within a manufacturing production line, there is built-in peer accountability. Each person must do their job so that everyone else can do their jobs. If one person falters, everyone feels the effects. However, since 1980, manufacturing jobs have been steadily replaced by service jobs, which do not have the same innate reliance on others for getting work done.

The Effects of COVID-19 and Remote Work on Peer Accountability

The decline of peer accountability accelerated dramatically as COVID-19 broke out and employees dispersed, no longer coming together at a common location. Though workers are beginning to return to office buildings and workplace sites, a good portion of the remote workforce will likely stay that way.

And so with a widely dispersed workforce working independently and remotely, creating peer accountability in an organization will be much more challenging going forward. The role of leaders, therefore, is vital in creating an environment that cultivates peer accountability.

In his Harvard Business Review article, “The Best Teams Hold Themselves Accountable,” bestselling author Joseph Grenny observed that teams fall into the following performance categories:

  • In the weakest teams, there is no accountability.
  • In mediocre teams, bosses are the source of accountability.
  • In high-performance teams, peers manage the vast majority of performance problems with each other.

As trends in manufacturing and the effects of COVID-19 continue to impact the performance of all teams and jeopardize their potential to improve, the need for leadership is becoming more critical. However, employees cannot simply be mandated to hold their peers accountable. To develop peer accountability, leaders must intentionally create an organization in which culture and strategy are connected and all workers understand how their jobs impact outcomes.

4 Steps to Create Peer Accountability

Take the CEO of a large commercial cabinet manufacturer. When he focused on using internal peer groups as the key to improving performance, within three months, the product peer group identified a way to reconfigure their door hinges that reduced the total cost of their product by 2% of sales. This resulted in close to $5 million in cost-savings. The root of this outcome was implementing a structured process around building peer accountability, using the following four steps:

Step 1: Intentionally design, define, and disseminate desired behaviors and habits. If you want to see what your culture is, simply look at the behaviors and habits that exist in the organization. Few companies spend the time to identify the expected behaviors and habits that build the foundation for culture. 

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Step 2: Establish clear strategic focus and strategic outcomes. Do this in a way that aligns and motivates the team around something meaningful. Importantly, create strategic focus statements in four key areas: 1) Customer and Market, 2) Product, 3) Operations, and 4) People. Then support these core strategic focus statements with a series of tangible strategic outcomes, which become the goals that employees rally around and pursue.

Step 3: Create internal peer accountability groups that take ownership of the strategic outcomes. These peer groups are deliberately developed to work together to identify and implement the actions that enable the organization to achieve outcomes. The groups should be made up of cross-functional people at multiple levels within the organization. 

Step 4: Support the groups with periodic “connection meetings” with senior leadership. These meetings should be conducted so that the peer groups focus on solutions rather than obstacles. People thrive when they solve problems, so senior leaders need to resist the urge to overcome challenges for the groups and encourage them to bring solutions.

This simple process helps organizations embed a solution-focused culture into internal peer accountability groups. When done effectively, employees become energized and motivated as they see that their work, input, and opinions are strategically significant and valued. Like the manufacturing line, each person has a critical role in achieving the outcomes. No one succeeds unless everyone succeeds.

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