The dominant culture of America was a direct product of accountability in the post WWII years. President Truman’s famous dictum was “The buck stops here.” This means, in essence, “I am responsible for the decisions I make, my personal conduct and the results of my decisions.” There is no blaming, no finger-pointing and no externalizing of causes in this statement.
Think of how rare this has become in current culture, three generations later. Assigning and spreading blame is a national pastime. End results are now thought to be a product of conditions, rather than personal or group actions and decisions. My personal favorite in that passive language derby is the pseudo-apology, “Mistakes were made.” (“But not by me” is the implied subtext!)
Externalizing causes means abnegating personal controls and influences for any set of events. We can point to the economy, the weather, insurance companies, big pharma, etc. and ignore our own choices and roles along the way. This is a pernicious practice and leads to two different aspects of a loss of accountability:
- An increasing sense of entitlement
- A lowering of standards in the organization
Entitlement means a sense of being owed something from a system or an organization, regardless of one’s input or output. It’s really a form of being out of exchange, and is not sustainable. This has now become the dominant culture overall, and in many systems and organizations. In my opinion, it is a large scale, fundamental problem in our country, but can scale down to your company, your workgroup and you personally. You may hear the key phrases in your work place:
- It wasn’t my fault…
- I shouldn’t have to do this…
- I deserve…
- It’s not busy…
- The phone isn’t ringing…
A lowering of standards is the natural outflow from a loss of accountability. The simple idea is that since no one has final responsibility for something, and it’s all done by committee, the end result is not owned by anyone. This also means that processes take longer, are less efficient, and will tend to expand in scope with a less usable end result.
We see the lowering of standards on a frequent basis in public works projects. It takes so long to get road or bridge projects (for example) under way, that by the time the project is complete, the original purpose is now obsolete!
We also see a lowering of standards in our public education system. We have a high-intentioned Federal law called No Child Left Behind, meant to improve the educational system such that all kids would have access to a fundamental and basic set of skills. Instead, no one has been held bottom line accountable, and any changes that have occurred are to lower the test standards so everyone “passes”.
From the works of Steven Covey, we know that in any given situation, there are areas of concern and areas of influence. From the works of Viktor Frankl, we know that sometimes the area of influence is restricted to your response to circumstances and externalities. Addressing your area of influence (or sometimes direct control) is the core of developing accountability. For reasons of access and efficiency, always start in your personal area of influence before going to the group.
The powerful question is usually a variation on, “What’s my role in this?” This is not an exercise in self-flagellation, just an inquiry into what you can do to change the course of events.
The method is to examine anything within your circle of influence and focus your changes only on that. This may be quite narrow, as in the example of a prisoner of war or a survivor of an earthquake/tsunami. It may be quite broad and detailed as in the case of a declining business, a dysfunctional work group or a strong competitor in the marketplace. A list of ideas and actions, no matter how long, is the place to start.
The good news about this exercise is that this focus leads to concerted actions and can guide you towards the end result you seek, rather than being a passive participant, or worse, a victim.
Identify a problem or bottleneck in your workflow. then ask, “what’s my role in this?” Start with your personal role, then expand it to include your organization or workgroup.