Everyone makes a mistake on occasion. I’ve seen the smartest and most meticulous people write down the wrong time or date for a meeting. It happens. And as long as it’s not habitual, most people tolerate small mistakes.
Accountability vs Blame
Then there are major screw ups. Perhaps someone didn’t anticipate a key risk on a project or realized during step 9 that step 3 in a process was skipped, causing major rework and embarrassment with the client.
The real issue is how organizations deal with mistakes of this nature. Many organizations talk about not focusing on blame. Certainly, when a major faux pas is made, the first thing to focus on is how to make amends.
Who was responsible?
Once corrective actions begin, you start to hear people saying things like “We have to determine who is responsible and hold them accountable.” To me, that sounds a lot like “We need a scapegoat to shoulder the blame.” A decision needs to be made. It is a debate of accountability vs blame.
I’m all for holding people accountable. But people have different opinions of what that means. Some see it as identifying someone to punish while others see it as a teaching moment. Some see punishment as a form of teaching, assuming that if an employee knows they’ll face a severe punishment for messing up, they will be extra careful.
This negative reinforcement may make employees cautious, which can be good. But it may make them too cautious, causing them to avoid any type of risk that could help them – and the organization – excel.
Performance evaluations tend to start someone with the expectation of perfection, and then ding them down to their realistic level after identifying everything they did wrong. This can create a negative environment, where people either cover up errors or begin passing blame on other people as soon as things go south. In this type of environment, people learn that the sooner you can pin the blame on a co-worker, the quicker you can save your own ass.
There are positive environments that have tolerance for errors, some that even encourage people to take risks and make errors in the interest of learning. This creates an environment of honesty and accountability. As soon as someone realizes something is wrong, they feel confident going into the boss’s office and saying “I made a mistake that could cost us (time, money, credibility, all of the above)”.
A good leader will both work with an employee to help figure out how to correct an error, and hold them accountable in a positive way. They will help them identify lessons learned – what they could have done differently to avoid this happening again?
Organizations like this tend to be more transparent with their employees and with their customers, creating an environment of trust within the organization and with everyone that interacts with them.
How does your organization hold people accountable?
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As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.