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Empowered Accountability: How to Scale a Team Without Losing Its Autonomy

Dec 6, 2018 7 min readWorkplace of the future
Photo of Åsa Nyström
Åsa Nyström

VP of Customer Advocacy @ Buffer

Growing pains. Every company gets them, and the pains come in all sorts of ways, from the tactical (tools) to the philosophical (this post).

As your company grows, some of your team members may feel like they have less impact.

You may find it harder to set accountabilities and goals.

Things can start to feel “top down.”

We find ourselves dreaming about being empowered, making our own decisions, and setting our own goals.

Wouldn’t it be nice to make those dreams a reality?

The trick comes with allowing empowered accountability to happen in the midst of team growth. This all seems to come organically with a smaller-sized team, but as you grow, you lose the thread. Less-empowered teammates become less accountable; less-accountable teammates become less engaged.

Here’s what we’re doing to bring back this sense of empowered accountability on our Buffer customer advocacy team. I’d love to hear if this resonates and any advice you’d have to share!

Why empowered accountability matters so much in customer support

We have definitely gone through many stages of empowerment at Buffer.

We’ve been a very small team with a huge amount of ownership, we’ve been fully self-managed, we’ve swung the other way toward leadership and OKRs — we’ve done it all.

We’re now 85 people strong, and with several large teams we’re keen to make sure each person continues to feel empowered as well as accountable for their work. In the company we aspire to build, managers should not have to be involved in every decision and become bottle necks, and team members should feel confident in their own expertise and ownership to push the company forward.

This is especially true in the Customer Advocacy team at Buffer. When providing customer service in a fast moving industry such as social media, we need a high level of accountability and empowerment from the team to ensure we provide the best possible customer experience.

Our team is on the frontline and we’re the people that know about things first.

We have important conversations directly, daily, with our customers.

We have the ability to turn a bad customer experience into a good one.

A few months ago, I spoke to my colleague Adam (our Customer Advocacy Quality Manager) about exactly this. We talked about the idea of having a very experienced and knowledgeable team and how we can scale this team while making sure everyone still feels empowered with a lot of ownership. We want to ensure that team members lean into their expertise when making decisions and providing support. We want to remove hesitation about decision-making and to enable our team support our customers the best we can. Adam suggested we could call it “empowered accountability;” ever since, it’s been a topic we discuss often.

What is empowered accountability?

Empowered accountability within Customer Advocacy has become a guiding principle for us. We want our entire team to feel empowered to go out and do their best work, while also holding each other accountable for goals, growth, and success.

What does this look like in practice?

  • Our customer advocates are empowered and confident to make the decisions necessary to positively affect their customers’ experiences with Buffer
  • They are empowered to work with the engineering and product teams and provide insights
  • Teammates are empowered to mentor their peers
  • Teammates are empowered and encouraged to provide praise and constructive feedback
  • Teammates are empowered to own their professional growth at Buffer

We also talk often about the concept that “people have to empower themselves” (we found this Harvard Business Review article to be useful context for the discussion).

The role of leaders on our team is to encourage and support the decision-making environment for teammates and to give them the tools and knowledge they need to make and act on their own decisions. This will happen naturally as a small company starting up, but as you scale up the team, you’ll need to invest time in this process. We have noticed that it’s only when making sure team members have enough time to feel empowered to make decisions and try new things that we see the same level of ownership as the early days.

So how do you encourage empowered accountability within a team without creating chaos?

Here are some ideas.

1. Communicate clearly with your team

Explain the “why” behind empowered accountability.

What exactly are you trying to achieve? Make sure you keep the discussion going with leads and team members. Make accountability and empowerment part of the agenda, and evolve processes when needed. For us it felt vital to make this focus a topic in the team to ensure we all felt aligned and could grow with this in mind.

2. Encourage and support empowerment within the team

Give power.

Let teammates do their job, and don’t second-guess decisions. In the Customer Advocacy team at Buffer we’ve been very explicit about how we look at empowered accountability and what we expect from team members. We see evidence of this empowered accountability in the individual goals team members set with their lead, when a team member takes on specific projects, in the way they communicate important information around customers experience with the product to our engineers and product managers, and also in the experience they provide to our customers. We are very focused on providing the highest quality customer support, and it’s vital that our team members feel empowered and held accountable for us to be able to live up to this. As we audit our support tickets, we use our own process called Empowered Quality Commitment. In this process we grade tickets sent to customers based upon three categories; Empathy, Clarity and Empowerment.

3. Outline accountability (size of ownership)

Make sure your team has a clear idea about their scope and their area of responsibility.

Outline each teammate’s role so that they don’t feel like they have to do everything.

We use industry benchmarks from Radford to define job levels as well as scope, ownership, and initiative at Buffer. This is definitely something we’re just now wrapping our heads around in the Customer Advocacy team but it may look a little bit like this:

  • Entry level Customer Advocate:
    Limited scope, learning about support at Buffer and is following standard practices. Is held accountable for learning about the support process and their tickets.
  • Advanced Customer Advocate:
    Fully owns projects in their area, both inbox and support related responsibilities, with decreasing guidance from leads. Is held accountable for themselves, the inbox, projects taken on and each customer they are in contact with.
  • Customer Advocate Manager:
    Held accountable for their team, their projects and goals, all of our customers and their experience. They are also responsible for delivering nuanced feedback and for their team member growth.

4. Build a culture where you can fail safely

Create an environment at your company where you’re encouraged to learn, take initiative and fail safely.

If we’re not scared of failing, we’re more likely to take initiative and be engaged at work. If we know that we’re doing our best, then why should anyone be punished for trying?

5. Make sure your leads and managers feel empowered and not only the leadership group

Team members are more likely to feel empowered if you empower their direct managers, too.

The important piece is to help your team empower themselves and to encourage wanting to be held accountable. If all levels show evidence of accountability, we start to build trust in the team. We have worked with setting accountabilities each week in our 1:1s, where we set goals for what we want to be held accountable for until next week for example. As a VP of my area, I need to work on making sure my leads can also feel empowered to make decisions without me and also be confident that they will follow up on their accountabilities. This is a huge learning experience for us, and we’re still learning each step on the way.

What outcomes could you expect from empowered accountability?

1. Productive, engaged and motivated team

A meta-analysis of a number of leadership experiments showed that empowered teammates are more likely to be powerful, confident individuals who are committed to meaningful goals and who demonstrate initiative and creativity to achieve them. They typically have the freedom to generate novel ideas and the confidence that these ideas will be valued. We have found that our team members are not only engaged and motivated by their work but also passionate to pursue a career within customer support and to stay with Buffer.

2. High level of trust

When you have a high level of empowered accountability, you tend to trust your team lead and your peers. This trust run through the company. Trust is the foundation for great teamwork.

3. The team is aware of their impact

It can be tricky to see the impact you have on the business, even when you’re in a company with 85 people. When you’re empowered to take initiative and own things, you tend to also gain more context in a company. You learn to understand the impact you have, the impact your team has, as well as other areas of the company. Understanding the importance of your role is vital, and I’d say this is especially important in customer support.

4. Better results

When your teammates feel more empowered and accountable for their areas, you will see a shift in engagement and productivity. But you should also make sure to involve team members in decision making and planning. If people feel empowered, they’re more likely to speak up, and all insights are important to make the right decisions. As everyone feels more accountable also, you are more invested in the goals and results. So eventually you’d expect too see your team hitting those goals!

Over to you

Figuring out how to scale a customer service team in a fast-moving industry while making sure team members feel empowered, motivated, and accountable is a learning experience for us all. Experimenting is part of the journey, and staying true to transparency is key. We have definitely not got this figured out, but I think we can definitely make strides for a more empowered team when we make sure to have open conversations about ownership, growth, and accountability.

As always, we’re keen to learn from you!

How do you ensure your team feels empowered and is also clear about their accountabilities?

Feel free to share any thoughts in the comments below. And thanks for reading!

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