The staff meeting began with the senior vice president saying “Someone has to be held accountable for this mess. What the hell happened?” I could feel everyone in the room shrink back. The room was very quiet for a long moment. The tone of the manager’s question made it clear that he was looking for someone to blame. I knew that he had been in a very tense meeting with the board of directors the evening before. He had described it to me as feeling “grilled” and he was not happy about it.
I cringed in that moment because I could see the damage that was being done to the group and I saw the power of accountability slipping away. I don’t think this manager meant for that to happen, but he appeared to be at a loss for how to get at accountability without confusing it with blame.
Some version of this story happens often in groups. It’s understandable – most of us have these intertwined – but it undermines the power of the group effort. A couple of key distinctions can begin to transform how accountability works in your group.
Accountability is not blame.
Accountability is simply an agreement to answer, or to “account,” for our actions. This means we are reporting accurately what we did and what the effects were.
This is far from the notion of blame. The word blame actually derives from old Latin (blasphemere) that includes “reproach” and “revile.” I think its easy to say that these sentiments will hardly improve performance; rather they will halt progress in a flash.
If an accounting indicates that someone didn’t do what she said she would do, then its a problem of integrity or commitment. Some people do not care about acting responsibly. If that is the case, then they need to go. But that’s not usually what happens. Most people are doing the best they can to do the right thing and still sometimes things don’t work out. Those are the situations where we need powerful accountability.
Accountability is about learning.
Blame causes people to hide or avoid the truth and then learning stops. Removing blame, even when something goes wrong or differently than expected creates open and honest communication for true organizational learning to occur. You can assess what worked, what didn’t work, and how to improve. You can make valuable course corrections that make the difference between success and failure.
Accountability and the personal integrity that it requires are easier to sustain when you have the elements of group alchemy in place. If you are struggling with accountability it might actually be inspiration or agreements that need attention.
Check your inspiration:
If you haven’t had that conversation about the inspiration for your group or partnership that makes your shared goals explicit then inspiration is the place to start. It is commitment to our inspiration that invites us to be deeply honest about how we are doing.
Check your agreements:
Remember that explicit agreements are the key to working together. We are accountable for what we have committed or agreed to. Are your agreements specific with accountability measures built in so that everyone is operating from the same understanding?
Get rid of blame.
It’s easy to look for someone to blame when we are frustrated or angry that something didn’t go the way we expected. In fact, research indicates that it’s the brain’s automatic reaction when something goes wrong. But we don’t have to be stuck there. If you want more accountability in your group, your business, or your partnership, start by learning to recognize blame and move into learning.
Take the time to acknowledge your disappointment, frustration, anger – whatever the feelings are.
Then get curious. What happened? Was the plan clear? Did someone misunderstand? Did you have the right resources? Did you have clear agreements in place?
When you do these things you will create shared ownership for results in your group and accountability will be embraced as a way to achieve the excellence and success that everyone wants.