Habits of Leadership – Taking Blame and Admitting Fault

My guests for this episode were Kate Westin of CWA Connect and Dr. Gregg Steinberg, author of Full Throttle.

Kate draws a critical distinction between “blame” and accountability. We’ll get much more organizational benefit from accountability, and very little from blame. Folks often use these terms interchangeably, and they are not the same thing.

Blame is when you inform someone that their voluntary action is socially or morally inappropriate.

Blame is also a defensive posture. People start to blame often when they are insecure. It’s also a state of less than complete control or awareness. Blame often gets picked up as shame or guilt, inspiring additional defensiveness by the listener. This leads to emotional, subconscious and irrational responses.

Accountability is what you get when you have these four elements in place:

  • goals you have defined
  • specific agreed objectives
  • monitoring of progress
  • application of consequences

Accountability is an aspect of learning. Blame merely generates “CYA” (cover your ass) behaviors, and all but guarantees we repeat the mistake.

To get away from negative blame and embrace positive accountability, we can follow these steps:

Step 1 – Seek Information Not Evidence

First we need to find out what is going on, and a great neutral question to ask is “What happened?” (As opposed to, “Who is to blame?”) This needs to be asked in a neutral and non-accusatory tone of voice, and needs to be sincere. When you ask this question, it’s about history, about events — not people. If the listeners start to feel defensive — if their limbic systems become engaged — then the question wasn’t asked right.

Do not assume that people intentionally did things wrong. Do assume good intent.

Step 2 – Step Back and Identify Contributing Roles

Ask a question like “How did we each contribute to the outcome?” or “What role did I play in bringing about this result?” Even if my piece was just 5% of the whole, it focuses my attention on my own 5% — which is the part that is most under my control.

Your goal here is to get everyone into a frame of mind of openness and curiousity. That can only happen when folks are feeling safe and non-defensive.

Step 3 – Listen Intensely

Once you’ve asked the questions above, listen. Listening can be hard — it involves being quiet and using your ears. And one good technique can be to re-state what you thought you heard, and listen again.

Step 4 – What do we Learn?

After listening deeply to everybody involved, you can jointly synthesize what you’ve learned into one or more lessons. Ask the team, “How can we get better at this?” and “What can we learn from this?” Make notes and share the learning with the team and throughout the firm, and possibly with suppliers and customers as appropriate.

More broadly, it’s good to always have folks ask, “How can I get better?”

Step 5 – Get Back to Work

We’ve rounded the bases, we’ve had our accountability and learning, and now it’s time to get back to work.

A key thing leaders should ask themselves is, what am I doing every day to make folks feel about themselves:

  • more significant
  • more competent
  • more likeable

To do this, I have to feel these same things about myself. This immediately makes me think about our episode on Effective Praise, where you look for the underlying positive character trait, and help the person see their best self through your eyes.

My second guest, Dr. Gregg Steinberg, is an expert at human performance and especially peak athletic performance, as well as business performance.

Gregg believes blame and excuses can (sometimes) actually be positive, and relates the story of Jack Nicklaus. Jack Nicklaus was voted the greatest golfer of the last millenium – he was the greatest golfer before Tiger Woods.

When he made a mistake on the course, Nicklaus would blame the wind, would blame a spike mark, would blame his caddy for handing him the wrong club. And all of those things are external and temporary. They all can be left behind.

If your alternative is to blame yourself, that’s one thing I don’t leave behind. If I blame myself, I can destroy my confidence. And confidence is king, says Gregg.

(Beware of inappropriate confidence as discussed here.)

Consider a business person who goes bankrupt, and blames the economy and on customers changing their tastes. That person still has the confidence to try again.

However, you still need to be able to identify and fix your own shortcomings, especially your weak systems.

Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism covers much of this same ground. The optimist attributes failure to causes that are temporary and external and within their control. The pessimist attributes failure to causes that are permanent, internal, or outside their control.

To understand someone’s mental state and style in this regard, simply listen closely to the explanations that they give for their failures and mistakes and errors. Notice for each cause whether it is:

  • external (optimistic) or internal (pessimistic)
  • temporary (optimistic) or permanent (pessimistic)
  • within one’s control (optimistic) or outside of one’s control (pessimistic)

Gregg relates the story of the great baseball player Willie Mays telling the guys in the dugout, “Today’s a great day — I’m going four for four!” Mays then strikes out.

At his next at-bat he tells the guys in the dugout, “Today’s a great day — I’m going three for four!” Mays then strikes out again.

Mays ends up out at all four at-bats, and ends the day by telling his teammates, “Tomorrow’s going to be a great day — I’m going four for four!” He didn’t let his negative performance drag down his confidence or attitude.

Here’s a trap of the pessimistic mind set: Once you blame yourself you will stop looking for explanations and causes. So you will miss lessons and opportunities to improve.

How can I improve my own attitude and confidence? By deliberately choosing an optimistic explanatory style.

And as a leader, I can enhance the confidence and optimism of my followers by stressing the causes and explanations that are temporary, external and within our collective control.

Don’t blame ability — blame strategy. Ability typically changes only slowly, whereas strategies can be changed easily and quickly.

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