Culture of Accountability
Making sure perspective isn’t an attack
By Ian Richardson, Managing Partner, Richardson & Richardson Consulting LLC
A common issue I found when diving into whatever the “problem of the moment” was at my I.T. firm was that people were worried about “blame.” People weren’t stepping up to take accountability for outcomes. We didn’t have a culture of accountability – We had a culture of avoidance. What does that mean? In general, blame or fault fell into one of three buckets:
Culture of Accountability problems:
- “It’s not my fault.”
- “It’s their fault.”
- “I don’t know what caused this.”
Boy did I hate it when someone used the word “fault” to me in a conversation. It’s a dirty word in my world and has no place in business. Fault is something for lawyers and insurance adjusters to be concerned with. It was hampering our attempts to create a culture of accountability.
As I’ve grown as an entrepreneur, manager, and leader I have found that eliminating people’s concern around “fault” has been a key strategic focus to have better, more healthy conversations around issues and areas that need solutions or improvement.
People aren’t problems became my mantra.
When something went wrong – it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Let’s unpack that statement because there is a lot of meat there.
“It’s not my fault”
A common refrain was around people being worried about having “blame” assigned to them for a negative situation, outcome, behavior, or status. Some of this was simply having an accountability problem – people were afraid of having accountability for outcomes, behaviors, and a client’s experience.
Fear is a powerful motivator – Fight or Flight is built into all our DNA. Triggering of the fear center can happen for any number of reasons, including a multitude of reasons OUTSIDE of your organization’s control. Being able to acknowledge and dissipate that fear quickly and effectively became a core focus of mine.
The Accountability Culture Process
I adopted a process around this near the end of my tenure at my I.T. company and carried it forward into Richardson & Richardson as a facilitator and coach that has proven itself over and again with this situation:
- Acknowledge that there will be feelings and concerns – “During this discussion awkward conversation normally come up. There are concerns, fears, anxieties, frustrations, and other feelings that will bubble up and come into the room.”
- Honor the feelings – “All of those feelings are valid. There’s no feeling that doesn’t have a place in our discussion, and we will make sure to allow space for them.”
- Address the elephant in the room – “One potential feeling I want to address up front is that people are not problems in business. We can have outcomes that are problems, processes that are problems, behaviors that are problems. There can be situations where we are asking people to function out of their highest and best use, or a misalignment of people and job roles. The person however is never the problem.”
- Create an expectation of how you will handle the feedback that can contain feelings – “When we’re gathering perspective around [the topic, issue, or situation at hand], I want us to state it in terms of what outcome, behavior, or process is not working and we will address any feelings that may arise from that discussion.”
- When capturing perspective, capture it in a “Person-Neutral” format. Instead of “Bob drops the ball on client follow ups”, the feedback can be “Our client follow ups are not consistent.”
Use of this process has helped to create a positive atmosphere. We were able to get truth out into the room without people surrendering to fear of blame. With the truth in the open; solutions could be crafted that involve all concerned parties. They become part of the solution, instead of part of the problem.
“It’s their fault”
Worse than “It’s not my fault” – blaming someone else for a negative outcome only ever made a situation worse. At the I.T. company we weren’t paid to find who was to blame, we were paid to solve issues. We routinely had systems that we “managed” that 3 or 4 outside parties all would interact with. Too many cooks in the kitchen means from time to time, the soup goes bad. We would have systems that had outage and immediately all fingers pointed at someone else. Our team needed to be able to stand up calmly and say, “No one cares who broke it, we just want to fix it, and make sure it doesn’t break again.”
That statement of “no one cares about blame” was a rallying cry we would deploy to other vendors and suppliers. Making sure our colleagues knew that we cared about solutions versus blame made it easier to ask tough questions. In turn, this created an environment where the vendor could be honest. They could state if it was a process foul up or a human error.
“I don’t know what caused this”
The final bucket was the most treacherous, as it could easily land someone into bucket one or bucket two. Not knowing why something went sour was a completely legitimate response, in fact it was very common near the start of an issue. If we knew that something was going to go poorly, we would come up with a different course of action. Frequently we wouldn’t immediately know why a system failed, outcome went sour, or communication broke down.
Analyzing root cause while keeping the process from our first two buckets in mind helped in multiple ways:
- We could collect feedback in a person neutral fashion.
- We could ensure all parties involved that establishing blame was not an objective of our analysis
- We allowed the team to dive into issues, find the causes, and come up with solutions without tipping anyone into a defensive state.
By leaving blame behind both my team and I were able to get better insight into what was happening at:
- Client environments
- At a vendor’s operation
- Internally at our company.
With that perspective, we could create a better plan of action on how to address the issues that were causing negative outcomes and get buy in from all who were involved on the proposed solution.
If your organization is struggling to get the right perspective, or you’re finding creating a culture of accountability a challenge, Richardson & Richardson can help. Check out our case studies for stories of organizations that we’ve assisted with similar issues and download our white papers for deep dives on tools you can use in your organization. If you’re wondering where to start, book a complimentary session with one of the Richardsons today to come up with a plan on how to move forward.
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