It’s Not About Power

| | Leading Organizations

In Rising from the Ashes I told the story of how Donna led a team to success after having failed previously.

One key learning, which made the difference between failure the first time and success the second time, was how to create an accountable relationship with team members.

There are two things that often get in the way of creating sufficient accountability in relationships on cross functional teams: (1) people don’t report directly to the team leader; and (2) they often volunteered to be on the team.

Those two things were clearly in the way in this situation.  Despite the fact that she set the expectation at the first meeting that everyone needed to pull their weight, there were 3 people on the team who were not.

Donna was frustrated and so were the other team members, but she did not know what to do.  She was waiting (and hoping) they would volunteer to take on work as the project plan was further defined and others were stepping up to take on the work.  They did not seem to be getting the hint and tension was building.

If they reported to her she would have naturally taken action by delegating.  But they didn’t report to her and she didn’t believe she had the power to “tell them what to do’.  She was assuming that since they volunteered they were committed and expected them to do what was needed.

To find a way to solve this problem a mindset shift was first required:

  1. Team members are not volunteers even if volunteering is how they ended up on the team.
  2. Just because someone doesn’t report to you on an org chart doesn’t mean you can’t hold them to account.

What did she do?  She made a request of each of them to take on a specific task.  It may sound obvious and it certainly was simple, but until she could distinguish the mindset that was in her way, she couldn’t see what to do.

What happened?

Two of them accepted her requests and got into action.  One was actually waiting to be asked.  The third however did not.  They continually made excuses for why they couldn’t get to what they had promised.  Donna was faced with having a tough conversation and she was procrastinating.

She thought holding someone to account required that she confront them about their failure.  That was hard enough when someone reported to her and she had little experience with people not keeping their promises to her.  Once again the belief that “I have no power here” came to the surface.

Another mindset shift was in order.

Holding someone to account is not about confrontation. It is about helping someone be awake to the consequences of not keeping a promise they made, and giving them the opportunity to choose to be responsible for those consequences in a way that serves their commitments.

And by consequences I do not mean punishment.  I mean things like the affect on the overall project’s success, the other team members workload or time lines, morale, and trust to name a few.

The conversation she ultimately had addressed the full extent of the breakdown caused.  She also gave this person a choice:  “If you do not feel you can put things back on track and deliver what you promised, I will need you to step down from the project so I can put someone on the team who has the time and focus required to do what is needed to support our success.”  There was no shame or blame, only a clear choice.  That was how Donna was able to be accountable for the results and her relationships, not just with this individual but with the entire team.

The team member chose.  Integrity among the team members was restored along with a belief in Donna as the leader.  The choice this team member made is not important.  There was not a good choice and a bad choice.  Either choice would have worked for both of them as individuals as well as for the team.

Donna showed a great deal of character and leadership in how she handled this conversation.  Her confidence increased and it showed throughout the rest of the project as she led the team to a big success for their department.

Accountability is not about power.

It does not flow downward; not down the org chart from top to bottom, nor from the person with the most power to the person with the least.  It is at it’s most fundamental level it is about creating relationships based on making requests of and promises to each other to deliver on shared commitments.

If we ever hope to break the unproductive grip of the traditional management structure, the hierarchy, we need to stop relating to accountability based on position or title and from a context of one person having power over another.  If we are to succeed for the long run we must learn to relate to accountability from a context of personal integrity and responsibility with our focus on what really matters.

What do you think it takes to create truly accountable relationships?

To learn more about how to successfully create and sustain accountable relationships check out The Art of Accountability.  The next Webinar /Group Coaching Series starts on October 11, 2010.


Enter A Comment

Sonia Di Maulo   |   04 October 2010   |   Reply


To create truly accountable relationships, the team leader must plan for it. Like Donna, leaders cannot assume that everyone is on the same page, with the same values, drive, or expectations.

The best way, in my experience, to create accountability is to have a well-thought our strategy based on the people you have on your team, then launch the project accordingly with a meeting that encourages sharing of everyone’s expectations (chances all there will be differences). As the leader this is your opportunity to align the expectations and to offer tasks each person selects, right there in front of their team members.

Being a leader means letting the team drive the accountability as you guide and mold the path they take.


Susan Mazza   |   04 October 2010   |   Reply

Thanks for your response to the question Sonia. We most certainly need to be strategic in how we manage our relationships with team members and as you point out that requires dialogue.

Robyn Stratton-Berkessel   |   04 October 2010   |   Reply

Hi Susan,

What to jump in. So interesting what you write about. A “power” you are referring to is is hierarchical power, power over, power by authority, rank, status etc. True?

And that to me is the issue. As long as we hold the view of power in this way, we will continue to have people complaining about other peoples’ lack of accountability.

Until we start to see power coming from within – recognizing and valuing our own personal power and trusting it – this tension will persist.

So when you say “Accountability is not about power”, I would say it is absolutely about power. It’s absolutely about our own personal power to engage in conversations and issues that are necessary to move an agenda forward.

Yes, Donna had personal power, not power by virtue of an organizational chart. The more we can get people to find and use their personal power with others and for others, the more power to all!!

Sonia Di Maulo   |   04 October 2010   |   Reply

Yes!!! Finding the personal power within to lead and engage others in accountability IS key. Great comment, Robyn!

Susan Mazza   |   04 October 2010   |   Reply

Points well taken Robin and thank you for making them! I think the title should have been “It’s Not About Power…or is it?”

I did not make this point clear enough…that it is not about
“hierarchical power, power over, power by authority, rank, status”, but it IS definitely about personal power.

You make this point so well: “So when you say “Accountability is not about power”, I would say it is absolutely about power. It’s absolutely about our own personal power to engage in conversations and issues that are necessary to move an agenda forward. “

ava diamond (@feistywoman)   |   04 October 2010   |   Reply

This is an important post, Susan. Personal power where there is no reporting relationship is a sticking point for so many leaders of teams.

I just finished working with an organization that put in five cross-organizational improvement teams, each of which is co-facilitated by people with, for the most part, no position power.

Aligned with what Sonia mentioned above, I created a “launch day” for each team. Part of this “launch day” was their development of their collaboration/working agreements, and a dialog about how they would hold each other accountable for those agreements.

In my experience, teams need a vision, mission, key strategies, goals, and some teaming skills, as well as these agreements about how they will work together and how they will resolve conflict.

Without these, teams often flounder and miss their targets.

Susan Mazza   |   04 October 2010   |   Reply

Thanks for sharing your experience Ava.

I like the “launch day” approach as well. You need enough time to get people immersed in what it is they need to accomplish and how they will work together.

What strategies do you suggest for keeping the focus and agreements front and center along the way?

Maria Payroll   |   14 January 2011   |   Reply

To be a leader means that you need to ‘lead’ your employees or co-workers to accomplish your goals. Being a leader means you have the power to delegate tasks. You would not be a great leader if you do not have personal power. You need to show your employees that you are in-charge and yet you are available to help them through their tasks.

Aad Boot   |   11 May 2012   |   Reply

Great post, Susan.
I love the way you describe accountability as a mindset, not as a role. Being truly accountable means feeling truly committed to achieve the objectives. Leadership -> People Alignment -> commitment/accountability ; Power/control -> compliance -> mediocre results.
Thanks for sharing.

Susan Mazza   |   14 May 2012   |   Reply

Thanks Aad. Your point about the results you reap from a context of commitment vs. compliance is an important one. I think the traditional interpretation of accountability was created in a context of compliance based on a command and control structure. We need to shed that context if we want to break away from the bondage of compliance and create a commitment based context if we want the kind of satisfying, productive relationships that does and will drive success now and into the future.