Culture of Accountability

Culture of Accountability. People are not problems. Perspective should never be an attack

Written by Ian Richardson

December 25, 2023

Culture of Accountability

Making sure perspective isn’t an attack

By Ian Richardson, Principal Consultant, Fox & Crow

Back when I ran my I.T. shop, I found a lot of fear of blame. There’s always a “problem of the day.” Whatever it was – people didn’t want to own it.

“Not my fault” came up during conversations.

I despise that phrase.

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:

  1. “It’s not my fault.”
  2. “It’s their fault.”
  3. “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.

It was hampering our attempts to create a culture of accountability.

As I’ve grown as a leader I have found that eliminating people’s concern around “fault” matters. Having a focus to have better, more healthy conversations around issues. Getting alignment on areas that need solutions or improvement. You do this by taking fault out of the room.

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.

Accountability Culture Problem 1: “It’s not my fault”

A common refrain was around people worried about having “blame” assigned to them. For a negative situation, outcome, behavior, or status – didn’t matter. Avoiding blame at all costs was everyone’s top priority.

Some of this was having an accountability problem. The team was afraid of having accountability.

Fear is a powerful motivator – Fight or Flight instinct is in all our DNA.

Triggering of the fear center can happen for any number of reasons. There are a multitude of reasons OUTSIDE of your organization’s control.

Being able to acknowledge and dissipate that fear was 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. I’ve carried it forward into Fox & Crow as a facilitator and coach. It has proven itself over and again with this situation:

  1. Acknowledge that there will be feelings and concerns. “During this discussion awkward conversation will come up. There will be feelings that come up in the room.”
  2. Honor the feelings – “All 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.”
  3. 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. Definitely behaviors that are problems. There can be situations where we are asking people to function out of their highest and best use. There can be a misalignment of people and job roles. The person is never the problem.”
  4. Create an expectation of how you will handle the feedback that can contain feelings . “When we’re gathering perspective, I want us to state what outcome, behavior, or process is not working. We will address any feelings that may arise from that discussion.”
  5. 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 involved all concerned parties. They become part of the solution, instead of part of the problem.

Accountability Culture Problem 2: “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 had to solve issues.

We 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 outages. Immediately all fingers pointed at someone else.

Our team needed to be able to stand up and say, “No one cares who broke it, we 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 it to other vendors and suppliers.

We made sure our colleagues knew we cared about solutions versus blame. It 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.

Accountability Culture Problem 3: “I don’t know what caused this”

The final bucket was the most treacherous, as it could 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 bad, we would come up with a different course of action.

We often wouldn’t immediately know why a system failed. We didn’t know why the outcome went sour, or communication broke down.

We made sure to keep our process from buckets 1 & 2 in place when doing root cause analysis.

  • We could collect feedback in a person neutral fashion.
  • We could ensure all parties involved felt safe from blame. It wasn’t our goal to “blame” someone.
  • We allowed the team to dive into issues. They could find the causes. They were able to come up with solutions without tipping anyone into a defensive state.

Accountability Culture Takeaways

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
  • At our company

Our perspective led to better action plans. We were able to avoid negative outcomes more often. Buy in increased from all parties.

Put another way – we got better.

If the blame game is ramapant at your company, I can help. Grab some time here.

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