Fostering Peer Accountability: The Key to Building High-Performing Teams


High-performing teams—those quick to succeed together at complex tasks— are a requirement for succeeding in times of uncertainty. But the traditional idea of leaders sitting at the hub of the team, directing individual performance toward a collective goal, do not yield the kind of nimble performance needed today. High-performing teams do not rely on the leader for accountability, rather they exhibit a unique ability to self-manage and hold each other accountable. When leaders empower their team members to have constructive conversations, they foster a culture of responsibility, trust, and collaboration.

The Scenario: A Tale of Two Endings

Consider a common scenario: A team gathers for a meeting where they discuss and agree upon their respective responsibilities. After the meeting concludes, one team member fails to follow through on their commitment, causing discontent among the rest of the team. In a traditional setting, team members resort to chattering about the issue with their allies, increasing their frustration to the point where they take it to the team leader, demanding resolution. The team leader takes time away to address the issue, often leaving at least one team member embarrassed, frustrated, or defensive.

Now, imagine an alternative ending in a high-performing team. When a team member observes that someone hasn’t fulfilled their commitment, they take the initiative to address the issue directly. Armed with communication skills, the concerned team member approaches their peer using active listening, clear requests, and empathy. They avoid triggering their peer into defensiveness. As a result, the issue is swiftly resolved without the need for gossip or involving the team leader. This approach not only saves time but also strengthens the bond between team members, creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and responsibility.

The “Two to Escalate” Policy

An insightful Harvard Business Review (HBR) article introduces the “Two to Escalate” Policy as a valuable strategy for handling conflicts within a team. According to this policy, before team members can escalate a situation to their leader, both parties involved in the conflict must agree that direct communication between them cannot resolve the issue. This policy promotes transparent communication, mutual understanding, and empowers team members to seek resolutions independently, fostering a culture of accountability and self-reliance.

Teaching Accountability Conversations

Leaders play a pivotal role in providing the guidance and support that enables accountability conversations among team members. Here are some key strategies leaders can employ to cultivate a culture of peer accountability:

  1. Following a Framework is OK: Leaders should encourage team members to adopt a structured approach during accountability conversations. This may include clearly stating the situation, describing the impact it had, making specific requests, and seeking the other person’s perspective. A structured framework allows for focused discussions, reducing the likelihood of conversations becoming confrontational or unproductive.
  2. Preparing for Conversations: Sometimes, the surface issue is merely a symptom of deeper-rooted problems. By teaching team members how to reflect on the challenge and prepare for the conversation, leaders enable them to identify and address underlying issues such as recurring patterns, loss of trust, or questioning motives. By addressing the core concerns, team members can work towards more meaningful resolutions.
  3. Challenge and Connect: Leaders should promote an environment where team members feel connected and supported by each other—so that they can be comfortable challenging each other’s ideas and actions while maintaining respect and empathy. Connecting and Challenging should not be treated as dichotomous choices, but rather held in partnership.
  4. Managing Team Toxins: Toxic behaviors like defensiveness, blaming, contempt, and stonewalling can severely hinder team collaboration and productivity. Leaders should educate their teams to recognize these toxic behaviors and address them promptly by naming and diffusing them.
  5. Encourage the “Two to Escalate” Policy: Leaders must ensure that the “Two to Escalate” policy is diligently followed. When conflicts arise, team members should feel empowered to address them directly first before involving the leader. The leader in turn, should direct the issue back to the parties concerned if the issue has not yet been addressed directly between them. This approach fosters a sense of accountability and trust within the team.

When peers hold each other accountable, the Team can work faster with better results. By fostering a culture of open communication, empowering team members to address issues directly, and providing the necessary support and guidance, leaders can nurture a sense of responsibility and ownership within the team. As teams become adept at resolving conflicts constructively and independently, they make quicker progress towards their goals, achieving greater synergy and success for the entire organization. Ultimately, the power of peer accountability not only boosts team performance but also lays the foundation for a thriving and resilient workplace culture.