This article was first published by SDA. I’ve expanded on it a bit.
I once worked with another admin who, for some reason, couldn’t admit when she made a mistake. I just didn’t understand why she couldn’t tell the admin team, “Sorry, I goofed.” Not only would she not admit to making an error, she offered excuses why something wasn’t finished on time or why her work products had numerous typos or contained incorrect information.
I always thought being the first to admit you goofed was the right thing to do, and that it offered some reprieve from any criticism (direct or behind-the-back), and it enabled others to feel at least somewhat sympathetic and be moved to help straighten things out (if you needed that help).
I guess for some, being able to admit mistakes is still a hard thing to do, and I’m still surprised when I see it happen at work. So when I had the chance to take an online course titled “The Accountable Person” (a Skillsoft Leadership Advantage course), I jumped at that opportunity, hoping I might discover at least some insight into why someone won’t readily admit when they goofed. Here’s what I learned about cultures of accountability, tips for becoming more accountable, and the difference between responsibility and accountability.
Create a culture of accountability
If your firm doesn’t foster accountability, employees are not likely to hold themselves accountable. To move toward a culture of accountability:
- Make sure all staff knows your business context, and they should be provided a guiding, purposeful direction.
- Engage staff by providing forums for them to share suggestions, ideas, and best practices.
- All staff should know they will be held accountable, and that they will have to answer for their actions.
- All staff should be given the authority to achieve the results they are accountable for.
- The firm should fix any structures, procedures, and processes that prevent staff from being accountable and unable to carry out their work assignments and commitments.
Tips for becoming a more accountable person
Whether you work independently or work on a team, there are things you should do and should not do, to become more accountable.
- Know how your contributions fit within the big picture (whether it’s your firm’s mission and vision, or your team’s goals and objectives)
- Look for ways to make improvements
- Take initiative—take the ball and run with it
- Exercise sound judgment for your decisions
- Meet deadlines and follow through
- Correct your mistakes, and focus on solving problems
- Be honest about making mistakes
- Work with what you have
- Keep in mind the chain of accountability (you, then your manager, then the department manager, or you then the team leader, etc.)
- Polish your projects; be accurate in your work
- Just do what you are told without knowing how what you are doing meets the needs of the firm (or the team)
- Wait until asked
- Wait for someone else to perform your tasks or rely on others to continually check your progress
- Avoid making decisions that would benefit the firm
- Withhold deadline information
- Point fingers
- Hide or cover-up problems
- Use the lack of resources as an excuse
- Take actions that only serve yourself
- Rush to deliver the results if the results are not accurate
Are you responsible or are you accountable?
There is a difference between responsibility and accountability. Being responsible means you have an obligation to act. Responsibility is being charged with carrying out certain tasks. Being accountable means you have to answer for your actions. Accountability means you will answer for the success or the failure of your own work.
Moving toward “I goofed”
After taking the accountability course, I realize that while it might be inherent in some people to not hold themselves accountable, the office culture likely plays a part in their not being able to say “I goofed.” Perhaps the employee’s manager reacts negatively when the mistake is discovered and the employee learns to cover up as often as they can to avoid that negativity. Perhaps the office culture is void of cross-divisional decisions, knowledge-sharing, and resource-sharing, or that staff are not openly encouraged to be held accountable. When staff are able to work from their inner boss, align their contributions with the firm’s big picture, plan the impact of their work on others, and answer for the success or failure of their own work, they become an accountable person.
One of the worst things you can do at work is to try to hide your mistakes, or wait until it’s too late to fix things before you let someone know you made a mistake. I know some managers who take a “no surprises” stance, and so much so that the office has become a “no surprises” zone. I like that. Why? It allows you the perfect, easy out. It allows you to think, “Hey, I made a mistake and it won’t be so bad telling my manager, because of our no-surprises zone. She will be glad I’m letting her know now that I goofed, because then we’ll have time to fix the error before the report goes to print.” If everyone is tuned in to and accepts the no-surprises culture, no one will (no one should) think anything less of you when you have to tell them, “Oops, my bad.” The mindset becomes, “Thanks for telling us that there is an error in the report; let’s get it fixed before we submit it to the client.” The focus then, is not on you. The focus is on the problem (there’s an error in the report) and getting the problem corrected.
If your office doesn’t have a no-surprises zone, and if it’s apparent that some staff still have trouble holding themselves accountable, speak up. Tell your managers about the benefits of a no-surprises culture, and how it enables staff to own up to their own actions, and helps them grow more comfortable in answering for their actions.
Remember the admin I spoke of who had a hard time saying, “I goofed”? I now understand at least one of the reasons why. She had a manager who leaned toward perfectionism, and the admin was very sensitive to getting called on the carpet in front of the entire admin team whenever she made a mistake. Aside from the fact that she kept getting called on the carpet (that’s a different topic for discussion, and a good reason to have a word with that manager), one could probably infer that she was learning to behave like a non-accountable team member, due to the negative culture instilled by the admin manager.
I hope that admin has moved on from that particular manager, and is learning to be accountable for her actions. Or better yet, I hope that manager gets some hands-on sensitivity training.