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Accountability & the Blame Game

The buck stops here-the value of taking responsibility

Every manager at some point in their career will be faced with the repercussions of the failure of someone who works for them. Whether it is an oversight that made your team miss a reporting deadline or a horrific blunder with terrible fall out written all over it—think twice before you start playing the blame game. The first thing you get as a manager, before anything else, is responsibility for those who work for you. This means that whatever the mistake, be it large or small, you and only you have final responsibility. “The buck stops here” popularized by its position on President Harry S. Truman’s desk in the oval office should be a standard accessory for managers everywhere. As a manager your job is to build a team that can execute. When they don’t, the fault isn’t with the team it’s with the person responsible for their execution. Even when it’s the most ridiculous stupid mistake that couldn’t possibly be your fault. A team member on travel misses the big meeting because he/she was out too late socializing with the locals—it’s your problem. A team member hits reply all and sends a scathing e-mail about the client to the client—it’s your fault. Why? Because it never pays to make it their problem. I’m not saying you shouldn’t make it a point to talk to the person involved. I’m just saying that hammering a team member for a mistake on your watch isn’t productive. To your upper management it will sound like an excuse, to your peers it will show a lack of strength and it will not inspire improved performance by the team member in question.

On the other hand, taking responsibility even for things you couldn’t possibly have anticipated can help avoid the situation the next time it happens. If the team member(s) responsible is worth keeping they will remember the issue and ensure that it doesn’t happen again. For you, there is an opportunity to teach from and avoid potholes further down the road. For your upper management, they will either know it was beyond your control or see it as an acceptance of the accountability that comes with your role. This doesn’t mean that you won’t face consequences, but if those in charge are worth anything they will at least respect your character. If the mistake is such that it has on the job consequences, taking accountability may actually help you get to a resolution quickly and on to a new job with a clean slate faster. Don’t think that by playing the blame game you will be able to get out of the consequences of a mistake. Saving your skin by blaming a subordinate will not get you ahead in the long run. The world is a very small place and the quicker you learn that the better off you will be over time.

With all of the above being said it is important for leadership in every organization to enable the type of accountability I am talking about. This means enabling managers to drive accountability within their own teams. Even the world’s greatest chef can’t make great soup with poor ingredients. I believe it is management’s job to take responsibility—no matter what. However, for management to do that you need to allow them to have input into their staff resourcing. A manager without the ability to incentivize behaviors or play a role in selecting their staff will be hard pressed to assume accountability for their actions. There is a reason that you see so many managers in professional sports press hard for a voice in team composition once they have the clout to do so—nobody wants to be held responsible for people but have no role in choosing who those people are.

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Peter Sperry

It is also critical to remember that sometimes taking responsability means letting people go. It is never easy, particularly when dealing with a subordinate who tries hard but just cannot get the job done despite their best efforts. It is tempting to put these people on never ending corrective actions plans, let them hang on while doing substandard work, pawn them off on another department or hope that someone higher up will notice and take action. Ultimately, executives will notice and will take action, often with two terminations instead of one. But managers who cannot make hard decisions and take action are dodging their responsability to the organization and the rest of their team just as much as those who never stand up for their subordinates.