The Folly of Finger-Pointing

If individuals don't accept personal responsibility when things go wrong, their organizations will become dysfunctional and stay dysfunctional

People make mistakes. Things fall apart. The only surprising thing about the very common phenomena of faulty leadership and project failure is the disbelief and disappointment that people express when things go wrong, and our eagerness to look outside ourselves when searching for something - or someone - to blame.

Look at the responses to CIO (US) senior writer Thomas Wailgum's online request for stories about IT's worst practices. ( As Wailgum's respondents recounted the oh-so-familiar stories of short-sightedness, finger-pointing, incompetence and just plain meanness, they revealed their own anger and hopelessness - emotions that come from a sense of powerlessness.

Consequently, none of the online respondents talked about their own mistakes or discussed their own acts of commission or omission that ensured that things would go from bad to worse.

The voices in these stories were largely the victims'. But how many were complicit in their own victimization?

Taking Responsibility

Early in my career, I had an abusive boss. At the time, for a variety of reasons, I lacked the courage to report the issue to my seniors and kept quiet. As a consequence, others were abused as well. I made a mistake, and I learned from it. Many years later, when I reported to an abusive CEO, I called him to account. True, I could have been fired, but jobs are easier to find than one's dignity once lost.

What really matters is not what happens to you or around you; what matters is how you respond and what you learn from it. Unfortunately, most people have a difficult time acknowledging their own accountability for the messes they find themselves in.

In one organization, for example, a change agent with a hefty budget and a senior-level mandate quickly created enemies due to her tendency to talk too much and belittle the work of others. While it's true that she behaved inappropriately, why did the organization have to pull in an external coach to deliver the message in the first place? When she recently said to me: "This organization is so passive-aggressive; people never say what's on their mind" - sure, she was partly in denial, but she also had a point. Her behaviour could not have continued were it not for the fact that those around her were unwilling to step forward and call her on her behaviour.

Taking Action

The tendency to externalize is never more obvious than when I am playing back 360-degree feedback to a client. My first challenge is to get through the "buts": "But they wanted it done cheaper and faster." "But they didn't involve me." Once those excuses are cleared away, my client is able to identify ways he could have improved the situation.

Next, to test the client's understanding of the feedback, I ask him to do three things: Write down what he's heard and learned, commit to future actions and meet with others to review their insights. Most clients get through the first task, although it usually requires two or three iterations before it's clear that the words have made it from head to heart. But less than 75 percent of clients make a meaningful commitment to change, and only about 25 percent ever meet with critical stakeholders to secure support.

Most people, when faced with setbacks or negative feedback, have a tendency at first to place blame externally. Only those with humility, self-confidence and discipline are able to take the steps necessary to internalize criticism and be accountable. Exploring the good, bad and ugly of one's impact on others is a humbling process. Translating insights and commitments from thought to action requires the courage to forge more trusting, productive relationships by exposing your vulnerabilities and negotiating changes that will benefit both parties.

Stop criticizing and start empathizing. Aspire to become a better leader by, in the words of Jim Collins, "look[ing] in the mirror, not out the window, to apportion responsibility for poor results, never blaming other people, external factors or bad luck".

Leaders understand that when one person changes, everybody changes. And that's a source of hope in a messy world.

Susan Cramm is founder and president of the California-based coaching firm Valuedance. E-mail feedback to

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Reader QA

Q: People put up with abusive bosses because they fear for their jobs. The problem is, the system produces abusive behaviour. How can we change the system?

A:Progressive organizations factor 360-degree feedback into decisions regarding promotion (or lack thereof). Until this practice is standard procedure, abusive bosses will continue to exist, and only those employees who are courageous and secure in their employability will cease being victims.

Q: I have been accused of the opposite behaviour - of taking everything to heart. What are your thoughts?

A:Those who sidestep responsibility are the problem rather than the solution. But those who try to assume all the responsibility and fix things on their own limit their impact. It's only by engaging others that lasting change can be made. Business is not a solitary pursuit.

Q: If your employees aren't making mistakes, you're in trouble; they're either doing nothing or lying. But how do you protect yourself and your employees from a manager who equates mistakes with incompetence?

A:In RD type efforts, label the work so it's clear that the outcome of the effort is to determine feasibility. Build contingency and risk mitigation into your plans so that mistakes aren't as visible upward. Finally, try to keep your boss focused on the ends by keeping him out of the details - either in the planning of the approach and timing or the review of the status.

Q: How can a manager build a culture in which people take responsibility not only for their own performance but for their group's?

A:If you want people to take more responsibility, make sure they understand the organization's goals, provide information that illustrates what is and is not working, clarify how work gets done so they know where to go and whom to talk to, push decision making downward, and reward risk taking and sharing.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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