Why Accountability is Beautiful

I just heard something beautiful “I am sorry I should have caught that!”  Someone on a conference call was admitting that there was a gap in their work, and they owned it! The three words ‘I am sorry’ are beautiful to me because they represent accountability and a desire to improve next time. There is nothing more destructive to a team and an organization than the lack of accountability.   Each of us is accountable for the outcome of what we do and must own the results of those outcomes.

No one, no matter how accomplished they are, is flawless in their work. I agree with Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women who wrote “I think we are all hopelessly flawed”.  That is fantastic, it reminds us we all will make errors. When we do the resolution is to apologize, learn from the experience and try to improve to move on to a different thing we need to improve.

I have worked with people that seem to not know the words I am sorry to own an error or an omission. Instead they are masterful at deflecting responsibility and finding ‘someone’ to blame for the error. A litany of phrases could follow a mistake “I didn’t have enough time” “the project manager didn’t clarify scope”, “the developer didn’t read the requirement”.  These are the same people who told the teacher “The dog ate my homework” when they just didn’t do it! Although, one time my dogs DID eat my kids’ homework, so that is sometimes legitimate! Unclear scope is never an excuse, if it is isn’t clear you as the analyst need to make it clear!  If you didn’t have enough time and had to rush analysis, then own that there is a deficiency in your work and fix it. It’s understandable that things get missed. Blaming someone else prolongs the time frame to fix it and move on.

The inability to be accountable is toxic. This behavior changes the energy in a space. The rest of the teams feels uncomfortable, unsettled and frustrated when there are unresolved issues. Sometimes it is obvious who is responsible for the error. Other times it is not a specific person that causes the error. Teams that can strive to use the words “I am sorry, I should have caught that!’ and own errors will suffer and be less effective. I admire the teams that rally around an error and try to use root cause analysis to determine what caused the error and how they can strive to improve with future initiatives.

Highly effective analysts do not get involved in the blame game. They work to own their errors and lead the team to resolutions. If needed, the analyst will accept the responsibility for an error that isn’t theirs, no matter how outrageous it is, to move the team past blaming and solve the problem. “Yep I missed that line of code!”.  It’s a valuable lesson to model accountability and be ok with making a mistake. We want to strive to keep improving. Three things happen when teams become ‘accountable teams’

1. They are safe

It is safe to own a mistake. Accountable teams embrace learning and strive to improve. I don’t think I learn anything until I make a mistake. Sometimes I keep learning from mistakes until I master a concept and move on to making different mistakes! Accountable teams know this and allow people to have their learning journey. When there is a mistake rather than belittle or berate someone, they work together to determine a solution.

2.  They help each other

Accountable teams work to have peer review cross checks in place. Work is cross checked naturally and when something is spotted with gaps it is reported and fixed before the mistake goes any further. This is a powerful experience to have multiple people collaborating on a work product. This also builds stronger skill sets to share knowledge and expertise across the team. The phrase ‘It’s not my job’ disappears from the team dialogue. It becomes natural to share ideas and find improvements in how the team works.

3. They become highly effective

When teams trust each, feel safe to point out flaws in the work product and collaborate, the team will increase the ability to provide valuable outcomes. Work is fun and working with the team is enjoyable. There is a satisfaction to feeling safe. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs focuses on the things we need to be motivated. Highly effective teams are motivated because they feel safe, feel like they belong and as a result feel esteemed themselves and by others. It’s a powerful experience to work with a highly effective accountable team.

In my house there is this mysterious entity that is responsible for all kinds of things. ‘Somebody didn’t pick up this trash’ ‘Somebody left the clothes in the laundry basket and didn’t fold them’ ‘somebody left the fence open and the dogs escaped’. As the parent, I often found myself mystified at this ‘somebody’ that was responsible for all kinds of things. That ‘somebody’ is still around but I have seen a switch to taking personal accountability at home most of the time, I am hopeful this will be the case for organizations too.  

Let’s be part of the switch to create highly effective teams and start with ourselves. I challenge you to check yourself when there is a phrase that crosses your mind to deflect accountability. When the thought ‘Somebody did something that made it impossible for me to do what I needed to do’ crosses your mind, then STOP. Train yourself to change that thought to “I didn’t get an input in time to complete a task, is there another way I can get the information to complete it? Could I complete part of it and escalate an issue to someone to help me get what I need in time? Whatever it is shift your thinking to concentrate on what you can control and how you are accountable rather than blaming someone else for why you didn’t complete a task. If each of us makes this shift, we will see a change in our teams!

Heather, a BA Without Borders