Training and the Blame Game

I was surprised to see the results of a study last week citing the inability of many corporate leaders to hold others accountable. I was surprised because it seems like holding others accountable, rather than themselves, is a finely honed skill among many top leaders.

Nevertheless, the study, which was mentioned recently in a column in Training and drawn from the Workplace Accountability Study, reveals that 82 percent of respondents admit they have limited-to-no ability to hold others accountable successfully. That’s especially worrisome because 91 percent of respondents indicated they would rank “improving the ability to hold others accountable in an effective way” as one of the top leadership development needs in their organization.

My question is: How does blaming others and “holding others accountable” differ? When a leader of a department sees that his group’s sales, or another measure of success, has fallen short, should he first look to himself or those he leads? The leader of the department is the one who will jump in to celebrate and broadcast the big wins of his department, and he also will frequently be named at the top of the list of people to thank for those wins (even if, in reality, it was those under him, rather than he, who did the bulk of work to earn the wins). So, then, shouldn’t he also be at the top of the list of those to “hold accountable” when things go awry?

The study talks in terms of holding others accountable for not meeting expectations, but what happens when those expectations aren’t communicated clearly, or at all? The first step in helping budding leaders learn to hold others accountable is to make sure they are communicating adequately. If your company doesn’t do so already, you could have ready-made templates on your intranet for department heads and managers to fill out and send to all who work under them outlining each quarter’s (or another timeframe’s) goals. Don’t make the form too complicated or time consuming to fill out. All you need is a simple form that asks for the latest goals or to-dos, with another blank space for briefly explaining how the leader envisions these goals will be met, and then another space for listing due dates for completion. With the click of a button, the completed form would be sent to everyone working under them, along with the executive who oversees the department head, and someone in HR. It’s important that the form also include a place for the department head to note what he, himself, is responsible for doing to meet the goals he’s listed.

That small amount of communication isn’t enough, of course, but it’s at least a start that ensures everyone who will be “held accountable” has been informed that the goals exist and that they’ve been given related assignments and a due date. From there, it is up to the work group’s manager(s) to reach out to each employee to make sure they understand their assignments or responsibilities and how they will get them done, and to make sure they have all the resources they need to do their jobs. If that doesn’t happen, a proactive employee at least will have the initial information about what the department head expects to reach out herself to her manager to ask questions and get ready to meet the goals—or communicate back that the goals are impossible to meet.

In addition to communication, the leader-in-training also can learn to hold others accountable by having practice conversations about—or role-playing—the difficult conversations with employees who have fallen short. If it truly isn’t a case of the blame game, and an employee has not met goals he said he could manage, then the department head or manager needs to understand how to have that conversation in a sensitive, diplomatic, and productive way. A good way to begin that conversation is for the leader to first acknowledge any role he may have played in not adequately supporting the employee (if he truly feels he may have some blame to share), and then explaining why, regardless of his own shortcomings, the employee should have been able to better manage his assignments.

Creating a work environment that stresses “holding others accountable,” rather than being self-reflective and inclusive of oneself when things go wrong, is dangerous. It creates a workplace where those who shoulder the majority of front-line, hands-on work are not just doing the heavy lifting, but also taking the greatest hit for not accomplishing goals that are out of their control. Sometimes it is the goal, or picture painted, by an unrealistic leader who lacks adequate communication skills that’s to blame, or “hold accountable.”

How do you help employees reach the goals department or line-of-business leaders set, and how do you train managers to both assess their own role in meeting goals, as well as how to hold others accountable when things go wrong?