According to research my colleagues and I conducted, upwards of 80 percent of leaders who work on major initiatives, projects, or programs experience some form of team failure.

Team failures, wherein team members are unwilling and unable to support each other, stem from a variety of problems, but they all have one solution: team leaders and members need to speak up.

Our research shows a leader’s ability to speak up and address team failures effectively is one of the key ingredients behind successful project execution. However, only 14 percent of leaders are able to speak up about team failures in a way that effectively addresses the problem. The rest experience poor results. Leaders who ineffectively deal with team failure exceed their budgets on 73 percent of projects, miss 82 percent of their deadlines, and experience functionality and quality problems 77 percent of the time. What’s worse, team failures damage team moral on 69 percent of these projects, creating unnecessary baggage that is carried forward well after the project’s end date.

Anyone who has had team members miss deadlines, avoid meetings, or display incompetence in critical areas has experienced a team failure.

But strangely, the problem is not that team failures occur—even the healthiest of teams experience them; the problem is that many leaders don’t know how to talk about team failures and resolve them.

The true mettle of a team is tested by how a team’s leader deals with changing priorities, bad behaviors, and violated expectations. Team success or failure is based first on whether or not a leader steps up to a high stakes conversation, and second on how well the leader handles that accountability discussion.

When a leader effectively holds the team accountable—he or she reduces cost overruns by 64 percent, reduces schedule delays by 60 percent, and improves quality and functionality by 66 percent.

Ironically, leaders who don’t step up to the accountability discussion because they want to maintain good relationships are more likely to damage team morale and relationships.

Unfortunately, stepping up to the conversation isn’t enough. Leaders who attempt to use power or authority to hold team members accountable are just as likely to get poor results. How leaders step up is just as important as if they step up.

Here are three tips to help you effectively step up to accountability discussions:

  1. Be open to the idea that you could be wrong. All too often, leaders enter an accountability discussion with a story in their head (“He did this on purpose because he’s a lazy good-for-nothing.”). Our stories fuel our emotions and our emotions create our actions. If you tell yourself the other person is lazy, you may feel anger or frustration toward the person, and your feelings will come out in your actions. Your potentially harsh treatment can in turn foster bad feelings and distrust, and the team will suffer for it. When you enter an accountability discussion with a negative story, you will end up with poor results. To take control of your results, change your emotions by rethinking your stories. Consider that there might be other possible stories you could tell from the same set of observable facts. Ask yourself, “Why would a reasonable, rational person do this?” This question will help you reframe and reconsider your story. Reconsidering your story doesn’t mean you need to be naïve—sometimes your stories are right. But, if you enter the conversation assuming you’re right, your dialogue will turn into a monologue, and poor results will follow.
  2. Describe the gap. “The gap” is the difference between what you expected and what you observed. Describing the gap helps the other person understand the problem so that he or she can address it. To describe the gap, start with facts. Facts are directly observable, “I noticed you didn’t attend the meeting last Tuesday or this Tuesday. I thought we’d agreed you would attend these meetings.” All too often, leaders start with their stories and vague conclusions instead of indisputable, easy to address facts. Where stories are assailable, facts are not. Once the facts are clear, you can tentatively share your story, “I’m beginning to wonder if you don’t value our meetings.” Then check with the other person to make sure you’re not off-base, “Am I off here?” You want to invite him or her to challenge your story. Are your facts right? Is your story correct? The point is to start a dialogue—an open and honest communication between two individuals. The first 30 seconds of an accountability discussion establish the tone for the entire conversation, so start on the right foot.
  3. Explore both motivation and ability problems. Once the conversation is underway, leaders need to uncover all possible roadblocks. Frequently, leaders assume all problems are problems of motivation. If a person fails to perform, leaders assume it’s because the team member was lazy and unmotivated. This is what’s known as the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” Avoid the Fundamental Attribution Error by exploring the possibility that the problem is due to ability barriers. Does the team member have the appropriate training or knowledge to perform a task? Are policies and procedures stopping him or her from performing? Are others not helping—or even actively hindering—the team member? Once you’ve identified all possible motivation and ability problems, jointly brainstorm solutions. Involving the team member in finding solutions will help him or her be more committed to the solutions.

Remember, anybody can avoid a problem or find a workaround. The true test of a leader is whether or not he or she can step up to the accountability discussion behind the problem and handle it well. Hold your team accountable and you will see your results and your relationships improve.