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Accountability and Leadership

Understanding the dynamics of accountability helps a leader create a culture where people learn to take responsibility for their own work — mistakes and all.

It’s discouraging to realize how often, as leaders, we create the very dysfunctions that drive us crazy. For example, when people have a hard time making decisions, could it be that they’ve seen their leader habitually criticize the decisions of others? Or consider team members who appear disengaged — could they be keeping their heads down because they’ve been shot at for having a dissenting voice in the past?

In the same way, when people fail to demonstrate accountability for their actions, it’s worth looking to see if we are inadvertently causing that behavior.

Tom Peters once said the most exercised part of the body in corporate America is the pointed finger. When something goes wrong think about the energy some people expend on assigning blame while others exert even more energy fending off accountability. That collective amount of energy could have gone a long way toward solving the actual problem!

Understanding the dynamics of accountability will help a leader create a culture where people learn to take responsibility for their own work — mistakes and all.

The Leader Sets the Pace

How common place it is in your organization to hear people say things like, “I was wrong. This one’s on me. It wasn’t her fault, it was mine.” Here’s an even harder question to answer. When was the last time your team heard similar words from you? Some leaders believe it shows weakness to admit a mistake. And others are convinced they haven’t been wrong in years. We may be able to fool ourselves, but we’ll never be able to fool the people who live and work with our own flawed humanity every day. In my view, admitting a mistake doesn’t lower a leader’s credibility, it exponentially enhances it. People are far more likely to own their own mistakes if they’ve seen it modeled from the top.

Seek Solutions not Blame

Leaders can inadvertently feed the blame cycle by the way we engage when we become aware of a problem. Defining the problem and getting the employee on the solution side are far more important than finding someone to blame. What’s your best estimate on how far we’re behind? Where do you think this started? What have you done so far to mitigate the damage? What else do we need to make this right? Who can help us get back on track? These are far more valuable questions than Who screwed up? Unfortunately, some leaders need to find a scapegoat and in doing so, feed that natural tendency for people to then play the role of a victim.

Give People a Say into the How

Consider how easy it is for all of us to be critical of things we disagree with. That’s why it’s hard to feel responsible for a decision that you weren’t on board with in the first place. But when people have a hand in making the decision, their willingness to own it goes up exponentially.

In a culture where accountability is lacking, there’s almost always a corresponding lack of personal and professional growth, mediocre results, and the excruciating cycle of repeating the same mistakes over and over. When you see people trying to avoid responsibility for making decisions or playing the victim when things go wrong, it’s worth thinking long and hard about who trained them to behave that way, and then think about how changes in your behavior can create new behaviors around accountability.

Ron Magnus
Ron Magnus

Ron Magnus, managing director of FMI’s Leadership and Organizational Development Practice, with Tim Tokarczyk, partner.