I recently watched the film “47 Ronin”. It was a very good film and I enjoyed it. (spoiler warning: if you want to see the film, skip forward to the next paragraph). However, like most American films about samurai, the heroes are rewarded by being granted the honor of committing suicide. Every time I see a samurai film like this, it just dumfounds me, because the king (or equiv) has some really top-notch brave guys and the reward: let’s have 47 fewer guys like this on our team. Their reward is to die for being honest and brave.
I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised by stuff like this, because sometimes, when a IT project has a major mistake, things seem to go a little like this too (but only, in a metaphorical sense)(Obviously, nobody on the project actually dies). Sometimes you will get a room full of finger-pointing cowards, but sometimes, you will get somebody with real backbone who steps up and says “I’ll take responsibility for this fiasco”. When it happens, you could hear a pin drop. Everyone looks at you like you are nuts. They are all relieved, and you have their admiration, but they know you are going to get a beat-down or get fired over it.
Intro to accountability
I read a book called “The Oz Principal”. It was a good book about accountability. Here is my summary of the book, in thirty seconds or less: If you are quick with making excuses or placing blame, then you are a low-value chair-filler. Show some backbone and take responsibility for anything you can. People will recognize that you are somebody that they can count on. It has a notably higher value than cowardice.
The only shortcoming of this book was that it didn’t seem to discuss a reliable roadmap to getting there. Luckily, a friend had earlier recommended the book “The Compound Effect”, which presents an excellent idea and then beats the idea to death by repeating it five hundred times over 8+ chapters. The idea is this: you don’t become an awesome success by one or two big moves. You become a huge success by consistently doing thousands of little correct things. Each correct thing is a bank-deposit and each weak or crummy act is a withdrawal. You become rich (metaphorically) by making more deposits than withdrawals. I would highly recommend buying the book and reading the first three chapters. By the end of chapter 3, you will get everything out of that book that you need. It is a good investment of $12 and one hour of your time.
The loneliness of being accountable
If you are on a team of accountable people, it is easy to be accountable as well. Nobody points fingers. People have your back. If you make a mistake, nobody heckles you. You get encouragement to improve. It is a low-risk, high-reward scenario.
In contrast, if you are on the opposite type of team, it is pretty scary. If you act brave, people will be glad to pass the buck to you. When things go wrong, you can say “I’ll take responsibility for that one”, but you might not have the authority (right away) to do anything about it. It gets old really quick. How many of those grenades will you (realistically) be able to jump-on and survive? Not many.
So, you might start to wonder, why/how do finger-pointing responsibility-dodgers become that way? It is a path to nowhere, so why take that path? The answer is: people avoid accountability and choose to blame others because of a combination of “bad advice” and cheap incentives (or no incentives).
If you watch popular reality shows like “the apprentice”, you see people who are rewarded for back-stabbing each other and pushing blame to others. The ones who own up to their mistakes are very brave and you admire their candor, however they are fired seconds later. Several TV shows make it seem like there is no reward for integrity. There are no winners on a show like this. Only one ultimate loser who gets rewarded for poor behavior. So, if you spend much time in front of a TV, then you will have plenty of bad-advice to rely upon.
I can’t blame it all on TV. People are often the product of their environment. If you work in a place that only punishes people for being responsible, then what path is paved for you? Your only choice will seem like: “fall in-line if you want to stay”. I have met managers who don’t seem to grasp the concept of finding a root-cause and fixing it. They only seem satisfied once somebody gets blamed. It is pretty disheartening. Nonetheless, some people seem to thrive in this environment by developing skills for dodging responsibility and amassing evidence that is used for blaming others. It is a leper colony and you are probably better-off if you take responsibility anyway and get fired so you can go somewhere more healthy.
Not all TV shows glorify despicable behavior. I do feel a little better when I see TV shows like “Master Chef” and “The Great Food Truck Race” because on those shows, the contestants are only accountable to their results. Blaming others has no effect. People who resort to finger-pointing and subverting their teammates are revealed for the foolishness of their actions (accurately). It is pretty obvious and dumb. You just shake your head at the short-sighted thinking (as you should). In contrast, you see the people who embrace responsibility and you just know that those people will succeed in life, eventually. Those are people who already seem to realize that if you ever own a business, placing blame won’t save you. Solving problems is the only solid ground on-which to stand.
In part 2, I will examine what can be done to change things and incentivize a team to be more accountable.