Employees Who Don’t Accept Responsibility

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Busy Business ManIt’s awful to be compelled to work with someone who won’t accept responsibility. Here’s what can be done about it.

Your Worst Nightmare; An Employee Who Won’t Accept Responsibility

What should you do with a colleague, employee or boss who fails to accept responsibility?

It’s an awful realization: suddenly, someone you work with shows you his true colours when placed under pressure. In a desperate attempt to avoid blame and guilt, he avoids taking responsibility. He claims he “didn’t do it” and fends off attempts to hold him to account in any way. Once he starts running away the conversation turns into a chase. You try to make a difference, while he does his best to distance himself from feeling like a victim.

In moments such as this, there are no winners. If the other person is in a position of power, the loss can be great.

Witness the recent tragedy at NSWMA. As Kingston was covered in palls of dangerous smoke, it was impossible to find anyone willing to stand up and be accountable for what was happening. Many working adults who watched events unfold felt uneasy as it brought to mind some of their most difficult, irresponsible colleagues. It reminded me of a gardener who once gave my wife the following report after splitting the blade of our lawn-mower on a rock: “It bruk.” He didn’t say “I broke it.” Instead, his stance indicated that the mysterious outcome happened all on its own.

Apparently, in the minds of a few people, the fire at Riverton did the same.

When employees at all levels of an organization adopt this mindset they set themselves up as observers rather than actors, victims rather than agents. Their frame of mind places the entire organization at risk of losing profits, customers or in our case, fresh air to breathe. More importantly, they unwittingly render themselves useless in preventing the event from happening again. To them, it’s just a matter of having some better excuses the next time around.

It’s a corrosive, contagious frame of mind that must be addressed because it can leave a whole organization hapless.

What can the ordinary employee do to transform this mindset?

Step 1 – Separate Responsibility From Blame
In a workshop a few years ago, I introduced the term “response-ability.” Inspired by the work of Werner Erhard, I defined the term as free of the usual negative connotations: blame, fault, guilt or shame. Instead, it’s about putting oneself in a mental place to make a difference, especially when failure is possible, or even after it has occurred. Those who are confused with regards to response-ability end up only running away – throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In other words, they don’t want to feel bad so they surrender their power to act.

Step 2 – Show Others the Cost
When people are lost in blame-avoidance, trying to avoid negative feelings, they are momentarily blinded. Otherwise good people are unable to see the cost of abandoning their ability to act. You can help them see the bigger picture by sharing the impact of their blindness on you and others, dollarising it if possible.

Step 3 – Invite them to Take Action, Even if They Feel Bad
People who are accountable appreciate that life is always a blend of successes and failures, but they don’t only accept the former and ignore the latter. They are willing to “take the heat” when things fall apart. “Taking the heat” means saying “Yes, I helped to cause the unwanted result.” This mindset is a must if they wish to empower themselves to fix problems once and for all.

If you can follow these three steps, even when others feel badly, you are helping to move the problem toward resolution.

This can be hard work, but it’s easier to take the above actions if the person is willing. With skillful coaching you can prevent further disasters by diverting their attention to the difference they can make and the high cost of the failure. If you can help them be consistently accountable at some point, it is even better, as they ignore their bruised feelings.

But that’s not all. Here’s an important twist.

The best place to start helping a colleague who is slipping into victim-like, don’t-blame-me mode is to be a real-time role-model for everything I have said so far. In other words, assume personal responsibility for their powerless behaviour. Look to see where you can own the part you played in their failure to be response-able. As you look, learn. Then, act to make a difference.

Jamaica would be a different place if more of us could take this stand on a regular basis. Some do it every day but it remains a characteristic that’s tricky to see clearly. However, once you develop an eye for it, you need never be stymied by a colleague who fails to be responsible.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com

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Making Jamaica Grow

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On a recent trip to South Florida, I noticed how easy it is to do business. What does that mean for our governments in the Caribbean? Should it try to do the same for its citizens? Why? I explore these questions in my recent Gleaner article.

Here’s one way to really empower Jamaica’s economic engines

MP910220850Does Jamaica’s economic development rely on radically reducing the barriers to doing everyday business? On a recent trip to Florida, I had occasion to ponder this possibility.

The bank. WalMart. Lunch. And, if I needed to, Michael’s (a craft store.) I mulled over my shopping list as I drove toward Sawgrass Mills. “Remember, you only have an hour” I reminded myself, and at once it felt like a disaster waiting to happen. I needed to make these stops before going home the following day, returning my host’s vehicle at the top of the hour in time for appointment.

As I turned out of her complex onto a three lane, empty street, I thought “Where is everybody? Not even someone walking.” I parked in Walmart’s huge lot and scuttled in. Ten minutes later I was finished, items in hand. Helped along by three employees finding stuff was easy, apart from some pesky buttons which they didn’t have. Two of these employees happened to be Jamaican, getting me used to the idea that there are a LOT more of us in South Florida than I remember.

I sped over to the bank, steeling myself for the worst. I had to make a cash deposit and decided: “Let me try the drive-through ATM. I know you’re not supposed to use cash at these things, but I don’t have time to join a line.”

Ten minutes later, after several failed attempts at scanning two of the bills, I walked into the banking hall and glanced around for the line. “Here is where I always run into big trouble” I muttered as I counted ten people waiting.

Just before I could join the line, a woman with yet another Jamaican accent stopped me to ask, “Can I help you?” I explained what had happened and she asked “May I exchange the bills for you?”

Two minutes later she returned with crisp, new bills which I quickly deposited at the walk-up ATM’s inside the building.

As my stress diminished, I drove to Michael’s in search of the elusive buttons. A few minutes later, again without luck I returned to my car for the final stop at Arby’s, a fast-food outlet. Ten minutes later (even after changing my order in mid-stream) I was done, and pulled into my host’s driveway with minutes to spare.

It was a typical hour in South Florida. “But what a way it different from Kingston” I admitted to myself. I imagined some of the typical obstacles, ranging from traffic to poor customer service to broken bank machinery. Typically, these unexpected problems add minutes, hours and even days. Many business-owners, like myself, desperately try to avoid going out on the road on errands. We delegate the task to bearers, colleagues and family members as Jamaica’s inefficiency represents a huge time cost.

It’s too bad that our government leaders on both sides of the aisle don’t take a cue from our neighbours. When I hear them talk about “empowering the private sector” I get the distinct impression that they are describing a mysterious black box they don’t understand. It sounds like magic: do a bit of financial tinkering with this and that, and the engine of Jamaica’s growth will suddenly roar to life, like a rabbit being pulled out of a hat.

Their lack of understanding is a bit frightening. It’s clear to everyone (and the IMF) that government spending will play little or no role in reviving our economy. In fact, it’s arguable that fifty years of one percent GDP growth has occurred because government has crowded out private investments.

We could start by focusing government on removing the massive (and ever-increasing) friction that exists to doing business in Jamaica. If it does so, it would allow companies to do what they do best: legally pursue their interest in making profits, hiring more/better people and growing as a result.

By throwing up more barriers, amplifying the acts of wrongdoers and paying scant attention to the needs of legitimate business, government abandons its mandate to remove friction. It makes people like me wonder. “If I moved my business back to South Florida (from whence it came) and hired some of the Jamaicans living there, could the company be more effective? And more profitable? Would I get more done?”

Patriotism aside, each business-person must ask these questions periodically; and answer them honestly. In response, government needs to set aside persistent calls for the national interest, and focus on its job of removing friction. That is, it needs to commit itself to creating an environment in which it’s as easy to make a profit in Kingston as it is anyplace else.

When government does this job well, every Jamaican citizen wins, but it’s our shared duty to make it happen.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com

 

 

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How Executives Can Open the Doors to Feedback

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Executives unwittingly build up significant barriers to feedback. To prevent this tendency from affecting the bottom-line, execs need to be proactive.

In this article, I examine the specific actions they can take.

Why Executives Need to Make It Easy to Get Feedback

conversationHigh-level executives live in a rarefied world of extreme competition and ambition, but the longer they stay at the top, the harder it becomes to get the kind of advice that overturns their thinking. Here’s what they can do early in their careers to open the doors to quality feedback that keeps them and their companies growing.

Corporate leaders tend to be big fish in small ponds. When they were young professionals, they had many people around them telling them what to do and how to do it better. That number shrunk rapidly as they progressed up the corporate ladder, creating a natural shortage of direct growth opportunities. By the time they reached the executive suite, with its outsize power and influence, others have shifted their behaviour.

The fact that executives tend to be somewhat smarter, better read and harder working than their peers further sets them apart. This difference often goes unrecognized, leading them to think they are being told everything they need to hear. They routinely underestimate how much feedback their colleagues are withholding, especially around their performance. They fool themselves into thinking they know what’s going on.

These are formidable obstacles. What can managers do (before they join the executive team) to force open the gates of communication? Doing these three tactics can help them at every step of the corporate ladder.

Tactic 1 – Don’t just invite feedback, ask for suggestions. Most people who work around executives aren’t skilled at giving feedback to anyone, let alone to powerful movers and shakers. They often couch their words, using indirect language, hinting at the problem they see. For example, instead of being blunt and pointing out a flaw in the leader’s performance, they might make a vague suggestion for a new business idea.

Executives need to encourage other people to speak up, even if they must do so in their own terms, at their own pace. It’s not hard to understand why someone with a difficult message to deliver will look for the safest method possible. Sometimes, this renders the communication obtuse, but the fact that the effort is being made indicates courage on the part of the messenger. Both their overt and hidden messages deserve to be amplified, but a leader needs to have good listening skills to hear them.

Tactic 2 – Use formal mechanisms. A Jamaican firm has adopted a novel approach – each professional carries with him/her a pre-printed card on which every feedback conversation is noted. Targets are set for each person, who needs to have a minimum number of conversations per month. Another method some companies use is a 360 degree evaluation, in which a manager’s performance is assessed from multiple angles. These structured methods help ensure that feedback is delivered, increasing the odds that an effort is made.

Tactic 3 – Seek early evidence. It’s easy for a persuasive leader to live in denial. All he/she must do is argue with early contrary evidence. A few years ago, I worked on a project in which I discovered that an executive team was at odds with its Managing Director. There was no open disagreement – things hadn’t gotten that bad. But there happened to be a vast difference in opinion that wouldn’t go away. No matter how hard she tried to persuade her direct reports that the problem wasn’t as bad as they thought, they wouldn’t budge.

Instead, she switched gears and argued that the issue didn’t exist because customers hadn’t complained about it yet. She was right – they hadn’t. It was the kind of problem that customers wouldn’t notice for a very long time. However, she missed the opportunity to deal with it during its early days, because it required a fix that would take several years to effect. On this point, her more experienced colleagues had an advantage she couldn’t fully appreciate.

Many employees make the mistake of believing that a top executives job is to keep things comfortably consistent. In the short term, many do try to stay in their comfort zone by making it hard for bad news to reach them. While this sort of ignorance may help them sleep better at night, in the long term everyone suffers. It’s difficult to run a company effectively on the basis of partial information, without critical feedback.

In fact, it endangers the results shareholders want, a fact that executives often don’t see clearly. More to the point, they also don’t see their own part in preventing head-turning advice from reaching them.

Achieving growth in these recessionary times requires ingenuity and sacrifice and companies must be provoked to reach new levels of performance. It takes a conscious and consistent effort to destroy barriers to the delivery of uncomfortable communication. But doing so is one way to prompt leaders and companies to grow.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com