Remaining accountable: How leaders can excel by owning their mistakes

by Jul 28, 2022Culture0 comments

Taking personal responsibility is essential for every team member, and as a leader, it is imperative.

Modelling accountable behaviour shows everyone that you’re 100% willing to own it, which is a huge morale-booster. If your team knows you’re always willing to take the rap when it’s your fault, they’re more likely to follow your lead.

For that reason, the act of being accountable has hugely beneficial flow-on effects.

On the other hand, what happens if an organisation is led by a compulsive responsibility-dodger?

Unfortunately, this affliction is highly contagious. If you habitually dodge accountability, so will your employees, and who would feel comfortable putting their honour on the line when they know their leader wouldn’t dream of it?

For a vivid illustration of how these good and bad ideas of accountability can change an organisation, let’s check out the IMPAC Personal Accountability Model (2006).

As we’ve seen, when someone makes a mistake within an organisation, things can go one of two ways. Either the person at fault takes full ownership of the error or they frantically bury the evidence in a desperate attempt to save their skin.

Let’s start with the high road – or in this case, the top loop in our diagram above.

If you automatically choose this path, congratulations! You’re on the ‘Accountability Loop’ – a virtuous circle of behaviours which lead to personal growth.

Here’s how it works, with reference to each term in the loop.

As soon as you decide to recognise the problem, you need to own it – a difficult but crucial task.

It does get easier, though.

The next step is accepting forgiveness for the error, from others as well as yourself. To get this right, you’ll need to engage in a round of self-examination. Once that’s done, you’ll learn how to correct your behaviour.

Only after fully internalising these difficult lessons can you take the action needed to fix the mistake.    

There’s no way around it – responsibility involves sacrifice. Yet undergoing this process yourself is essential if you’re serious about creating a company-wide culture of accountability.

An honest and open way to respond to something you did wrong would be to tell the team, plainly and unambiguously: ‘I own that this task has missed its deadline; I have come up with a better way to plan for contingencies next time.’

That’s how it should be done, anyway.

Unfortunately, some people are, shall we say, reluctant to deal with criticism. Allergic to fessing up, they descend to the low road by playing the victim, taking every possible measure to escape accountability for their mistakes.

Someone who dodges accountability might begin by ignoring the criticism in the hope that it will vanish – a condition technically known as ‘sticking one’s head under the covers’.

When reality doesn’t budge, they will often deny that they have made a mistake at all. And when that tactic begins looking delusional, they will happily blame others.

Of course, that won’t work forever.

After they have been caught, the victim will rationalise their behaviour, before resisting the consequences for what they have done. Finally, when there’s nowhere else to go, they’ll hide.

So, how is each person faring after this ordeal? Let’s catch up.

As the accountable leader, you’ve been humbled. However, you’ve also grown from the experience.
Because of what you’ve been through, you’re less likely to make the same mistake in future.

Meanwhile, the victim’s constant ducking and weaving may have avoided immediate embarrassment, but they’ve learned absolutely nothing. Instead, they’ve merely set themselves up for another fall – most likely more serious than the first.

And it gets even worse.

Long-suffering colleagues begin resenting being led by a ‘professional victim’, poisoning any goodwill. As a result, they may not be so lucky next time they try ‘pulling a fast one’.

Now that’s over, let’s clamber out of the muck and climb back onto that top loop of accountability.

To genuinely own a task is to make yourself fully responsible for its success or failure.

The modern workplace provides many perfect cases. For example, working out of the office requires a high degree of trust, which must be evenly felt across the entire organisation. With more people than ever effectively straddling two working environments, personal accountability has become more important than ever.

At Thinka, our belief in work’s human-centred future is reliant on nurturing and celebrating this culture of trust between all colleagues. We believe that when everyone within an organisation develops an instinct for accountability, everybody wins.

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