When clients proclaim, ‘we’ve got to hold people more accountable’ I can’t help but smile. Why? Because the declaration, itself, displays such a lack of accountability. ‘We’ve got to’ diffuses any responsibility for taking action. But imagine if the speaker said, “I’ve got to hold people more accountable.” Then we’d be getting someplace.

The first step to holding others accountable is to hold oneself accountable, and most of us believe we do so. But even the most powerful leaders among us often take on the mindset of victim, the enemy of accountability.

During a break at a headquarters meeting where cross-functional teams were being launched, I was approached by one of the team leaders. Brian was a well-regarded manager of a regional office with whom I had worked before.

He complained, “My office has tripled activity and doubled revenue in the past four years; I closed a smaller office and took on all that work without more resources. I’ve been asking for an increase in headcount for two years. No one in headquarters is listening. My boss says he is waiting for his boss to clarify his strategy. He says there is nothing he can do. And HR just drags their heels.” He was growing agitated.

I replied, “I wonder why you haven’t persuaded people to your point of view?” He exploded, “Me! I’ve done everything I could! I should just update my resume. These people don’t get it!”

Perhaps I should have been more empathetic, but I blurted, “It sounds to me like you are playing the victim, blaming others for what is your problem. Your boss and HR aren’t suffering from the situation; you are. Up until now you haven’t solved your problem, and you’d probably benefit from learning why you haven’t been more successful.” His faced flashed hostile, then softened.

“I get it,” Brian said. When I asked what he got, he said that he had been sitting on his frustration for a long time and the issue was eating him up inside. But before we could continue the conversation, the meeting resumed. Brian was much quieter after the break, and I worried that I went too far.

At the end of the meeting, Brian asked the VP of HR to meet the next morning to discuss something important. He smiled and winked at me as he walked out, signaling his intent to take more responsibility for his problem. I felt then that he really did “get it.”

If you agree that accountability begins with oneself, here are three ‘indicator lights’ to monitor. If these lights flash yellow or red, you can make different choices:

Beware of blame: Blame is the ‘canary in the coalmine’ of victimhood. When you blame someone, you give him or her responsibility for your situation, while maintaining your own self-righteous innocence. Yet every situation is a complex dynamic in which all parties contribute and exercise choice. And every choice has consequences. In fact, when we say, “I have no choice,” it more often than not means that we don’t want to live with the consequences of another choice.

Brian had exercised choice by not finding alternative ways to solve his staffing problem. He could have gone over his boss’s head, done less work, hired temps. Instead, he chose to blame others for a problem they didn’t have but he did.

Beware of contempt: It’s funny how often people feel contempt for those they serve. Middle managers believe senior executives ‘just don’t get it’ (and vice versa!); waiters skewer their customers behind their backs; flight attendants often treat people like cargo. When we hold people in contempt, we stop treating them with respect or dignity. And in the absence of respect, our feeling of accountability to them diminishes.

The surest way to stop treating people with contempt is to see the world through their eyes. It’s hard to hold people in contempt when you develop compassion for their unique circumstances. Simply put, we feel more accountable to those we respect and care for.

Beware of withdrawing: In his heart, Brian knew that by giving up he was not only letting himself down, but also letting down his team and even his organization. So even had Brian hit a wall of resistance when he met with the head of HR, he would have learned more about the bigger picture and why he hadn’t been more successful. And had he received commitment for additional staff, he would have learned that his withdrawal up until then had served no one.

When we hear that voice in our heads say “its not worth it,” that’s when we are at most risk of withdrawal and self-victimization. Thus, the straightest line to accountability is to stay engaged and live with the consequences of our choices. When we do, we are no one’s victim. When we don’t, we end up complaining that ‘we’ve got to hold people more accountable.’

© Robert Ponzoni -ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2008