When things go wrong, whose fault it? Who’s to blame? And how do you decide?
In our role as executive coaches and consultants, we are often called in to help sift through the wreckage of a failed project or other challenging situation that is careening off course.
Time after time we discover that a fundamental source of the problem comes back to people’s basic lack of understanding regarding responsibility and accountability. For example, when we begin sorting through a scenario, we often hear things like, “Well he’s responsible, but not accountable.” Or “He’s accountable, but not responsible.” Or yet another one, “She’s in a matrixed system so she’s partially responsible, but it’s hard to tell where the line is.”
Wow! Is it any wonder that things tend to run amok when something as basic as our ownership of the outcome is that confusing?
Years ago, I (Chris) received some wonderful clarity on this topic from a mentor, Dr. Bill Guillory, who’s since become a lifelong friend. He first met me at a time in my career when I was on probation for something I felt was someone else’s fault. In our initial conversation, I shared my view that the very fact that my manager had put me on probation was clear evidence that he was a clueless leader who was simply out to get me.
Bill, however, smiled and asked me a simple question. “Have there been other times in your life when you were treated unfairly?”
Definitely, I responded. But before I could begin to innumerate them, he asked a second question. “In all of those situations, what was the same?”
My answer? “I was treated unfairly.”
His response. “Right. And in all of those situations, who was the same?”
The answer, of course, was me—I was the common denominator.
It was during that process of being coached that I gained an understanding of responsibility that I had never been exposed to before. Fair or unfair, life is always going to hold me responsible for how I respond to whatever comes my way. Given that fact, I might want to consider doing the same—in other words, see myself as responsible for the choices I make, the actions I take, and where those decisions lead.
Here’s another critical element we've learned along the way that we delineate in our book Thriving in Business and Life:
Blame has nothing to do with responsibility!
As a matter of fact, when blame enters into the conversation, it’s a clear sign that people are starting to evade responsibility.
Responsibility is a mindset. In other words, if I see myself as fully responsible for my role, how I impact those around me and the outcome, what I will do to generate a productive outcome is significantly more than if I only see myself as partially responsible. That also means that I choose to see myself as responsible for how I respond to situations that seem out beyond my control.
And there’s the key word . . . choice!
Accountability comes after the fact. If we succeed or fail or fall somewhere in between, my willingness to take ownership for the outcome is the litmus test or evidence for how responsible I saw myself at the onset.
Blame, as you can see, moves us away from ownership . . . it disconnects us from how our choices, words, and actions led to the end result. Blame keeps us stuck in a repetitive cycle that is like an eddy in a river. We’ll keep going around and around, experiencing similar outcomes until we decide to connect the dots and see how we’re connected to what’s happening.
So regardless of whether I’m in a matrixed system or any other configuration where formal responsibility or accountability is cloudy, if we play by the set of rules we suggest here, we will be playing at the top of our game.
Because with that mindset we will make a clear connection between the way we show up and what happens. We will have chosen to see ourselves as responsible and accountable.
When we lay this approach out, some people invariably protest. “But what if others don’t take full responsibility for their role? Doesn’t that mean I’m less responsible for the outcome?”
The simple answer is, no. And the reason is equally simple.
There’s not just one responsibility scale that has to be divvied up among everyone involved. Said another way, each of us have our own unique 100% scale of responsibility and accountability. My scale relates to my role, my choices, my actions, etc. and how those impact me, others, and the overall outcome. In like fashion, each person has their own unique scale.
So the only question is, at what level do you want to play?
Choosing to see ourselves as fully responsible for our role can enable us to more fully access our inner power, the resources around us, and heighten our awareness of what’s working and what’s not. It also leads to us developing another critical cognitive skill we call Standing Upstream.
What’s that mean?
It means that we “stand upstream” in the various situations we get involved in and look downstream to get a clear sense of the likely future consequences of our potential choices. Then we can ask the question, "Is that an outcome I want and am willing to own?" If it’s not, then we can carve an alternate path and take different actions that have a more realistic chance of getting us where we actually want to go.
Here’s your Thriving Challenge for the week:
During the coming week notice your tendency to evade
or accept responsibility for your role, your choices and your actions.
See what happens when you step in and simply own your
participation (especially if it’s in a situation where you’ve
really missed the mark). From there, focus on the solution you
want to create and ask yourself a simple question,
“What am I willing to do to have this situation
turn out the way that would best serve all involved?”
The answer always seems illuminating and invites us
to stand upstream and decide what ripple effect
we truly want to create.
Will Wilkinson and Christopher Harding