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Teaching accountability: The “No Excuses” workplace

Excuses are a waste of time. An excuse is a long-winded way of saying, “Here’s why I failed” while hoping to be absolved of your error. Teaching accountability is a common challenge for today’s leaders and managers. The “No Excuses” workplace should be a goal of every organization, business, and group.

One of the first things they taught us at West Point was that we had just three responses to an upperclassman’s order: “Yes, Sir”, “No, Sir” and “No excuse, Sir.” It’s really that simple. You can translate this same approach as a directive to your sales team. Their goal is to elicit one of those three responses from a customer when trying to schedule an appointment:

  1. “Yes, I’m ready to schedule an appointment.”

  2. “No, we’ve taken your community out of consideration.”

  3. “We’re not ready now, but here is when we can do it.”

In leadership, you’re far better off building accountability in your team. Teach them to take ownership of their failures as well as their successes. Teach them that “No excuses, just solutions” is the rule. Also establish a rule that no team member can come to you (or anyone else) with a problem without also bringing at least one solution. You automatically instill accountability while also encouraging them to strengthen their problem-solving skill. It also eliminates a LOT of traffic in my office!

You can spend time placing blame when something doesn’t go as planned. Blame is like a hot potato, tossed from one team member to the next. Ultimately, it lands on one person, who may or may not be deserving of it.

All this finger-pointing does nothing to fix the mistake. It just delays the fix.

Why people make excuses

Let’s back up a bit and understand why a person is compelled to make an excuse. A child makes an excuse to avoid getting in trouble. My friend’s son told her, “I accidentally failed my math test.”

“Oh, well,” she responded with her stern “Mom” face, “at least you didn’t do it on purpose.”

Did the excuse get him out of trouble? Not one bit. In fact, his attempt at softening the blow of the failure made it worse because he also failed at taking ownership for not preparing well enough for the test.

This is a good example of why you conduct an After Action Review (AAR). How did he “accidentally” fail? If he didn’t study enough, then you document how he prepared for the test and how he can improve that process. The AAR requires a person to take responsibility for actions—not redirect the blame—and move forward with the lesson learned from it.

Your team members use excuses in a similar manner—to avoid the repercussions for failure. That punishment could be just a gently delivered admonishment or as severe as being terminated. Your workers also want to have your respect and admiration, and they feel making a mistake makes them unworthy.

So, what if we switched the scenario and focused on the reward for taking ownership?

Accountability and the art of leadership

Accountability starts at the top. Leaders must hold themselves responsible for what’s happening in their organization. Not long ago, my office manager overlooked a task I had asked her to handle. As she apologized, I thought about why she missed this one thing.

“It’s my fault,” I told her apologetically. “I didn’t offer the right training. Let’s work together to fix that.”

What happens on my watch, whether I’m directly responsible or not, is on me. A strong leader accepts responsibility for mistakes. I’ve stood up in front of my team on numerous occasions, admitted my mistake, and accepted the consequence. But then we, as a group, immediately look at how to move on. How do we fix the error? How do we avoid repeating it?

Whether you are leading one person or one thousand, be a solid role model for accountability. I apply the same rule for acknowledging mistakes as I do for coming to me with a problem. Bring along your suggestion for fixing it so we can move right into that mode, rather than dwell on what’s happened. The past isn’t going to change but we ARE in control of what comes next.

My daughter, Jensen, was playing in a junior golf tournament when she was a sophomore in high school (bragging rights here—she’s an exceptional player, nicknamed “The Hammer”). She was playing great, leading the pack. I was caddying for Jensen and enjoying every minute.

On the second day, in the second round, and making the turn to the back nine, she shanked it. I was stunned and let my feelings show! But my daughter, The Hammer, unruffled, said to me, “Dad, we will never play that hole again.”

What she meant is that this particular scenario would not recur. The weather might be different, the grass could be maintained differently, and her mindset might change as well. Her point was, “Get over it and move on to the next hole.”

Did I mention she was a teenager at the time?? I have seasoned professionals who don’t have that degree of insight.

Jensen proceeded to go right back to her game without losing composure. Her performance returned to its stellar level.

When you’re in the field of executing a plan, you don’t look back. You know you WILL be doing an AAR. After the final round, Jensen and her coach conducted an AAR about that entire tournament of play. She knows she can always get better and welcomes lessons. Not all players have the ability to learn like that. Is the person in front of you trainable? Are they a consummate learner?

Common excuses and how to manage them

I’ve filtered down the most common excuses so we can be prepared to address them in a way that fosters accountability.

“It’s not my fault.” This one is the classic finger-pointer response. Don’t jump into this game. There is no winner because the mistake has happened. You can respond by saying, “No one is blaming you. We simply need to figure out how to solve it and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Do you have any suggestions?

Addressing it this way puts the onus back on the one denying blame. Once he realizes you are not playing his Blame Game, he will refocus his attention to problem-solving.

“It’s not my job.” Ok, I’m going to tell you that this one really ticks me off and waves a red flag smack in my face. When you are part of a team, you pitch in as needed. Period. Every leader and manager should model the right example by going above and beyond. I’ve stuffed envelopes, cleaned up after events, and shoveled dirt when extra help was needed. Remind your people that you never ask them to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself. There were many occasions during my time in the military where this WAS the case. Whether stepping in and helping out in logistics, pumping jet fuel into mission-critical helicopters for fellow pilots, loading supplies with other crew members, or setting up bivouac, I may have been the pilot in command and a proficient aviator, but I was always a team member, first and foremost.

To the one who claims, “It’s not my job”, reply, “It’s not among your assigned duties for your job title, but it IS part of your job as a member of this team. When each of us can be flexible and helpful, we all win.

If you haven’t watched “Miracle on Ice”, the movie that depicts the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, make it a point to do so. The team fought the odds to beat the heavily favored Russian team for the chance to play for the gold medal, which the Americans won. Their coach, Herb Brooks, was a masterful leader. Brooks insisted that the jerseys not carry the name of the player, with the belief that you’re playing for a team, not yourself. That’s why the back of the jersey was emblazoned with “USA”.

I support that approach. The team is at the forefront, not an individual. We have job titles on business cards and org charts. In the workplace, you lose that title. Collectively, our job is mission critical. What name is on your jersey?

“No one told me….” Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Maybe no one gave the deadline or clearly communicated expectations. Rather than shrugging off the responsibility, the individual should go in search of the missing pieces. You want thinkers and self-starters in your group, people who take initiative rather than waiting to be spoon-fed.

Come back to that “No one told me” person with, “I’m sure it must have been frustrating. How could we have made the expectations clearer for you?

Once again, you shift the solution back to the unknowing worker. You make it clear you are not looking to blame anyone for what happened but establish a process for moving forward.

“I didn’t have enough _______.” Often, this blank is filled in with “time”. It’s understandable to accept “good enough” when the clock is ticking. However, from a proactive standpoint, it’s far better to give a heads-up well in advance that something is moving off-course rather than under-delivering. Skip right to the response, “How could we make sure you have enough ________ in the future?

“I thought ______ was doing it.” Playing dumb is never a smart move. Assumptions happen, and they are a sign of a communication gap. You should have a system of checks and balances, a built-in factor that assigns clear responsibility to avoid guesses that lead to mistakes, delays, and oversights. Your comeback in this instance is, “We need to confirm, not assume. Let’s look at the process to make sure that step is always included.”

If any of your team members don’t accept accountability after repeated attempts to encourage it, sit down and have a frank conversation. Be clear that the resistance to being responsible is not an option.

The “No Excuses” workplace

There are two simple ways to minimize errors and strengthen accountability:

  1. Set clear expectations. Make sure that everyone involved understands the common goal. A critical path details every step and should be integral in all of your plans. It also provides the measuring stick to evaluate performance.

  2. Deliver helpful feedback. Good or bad, offer feedback on the process of getting things done in your group. In the AAR, discuss suggestions for improving the process and/or results, and document the action.

Accountability is the THREAD that weaves your team together. Each person should be accountable to their teammates as well as themselves. The West Point Cadet Honor Code states, “A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do." As part of living according to the code, cadets follow “The Three Rules to Live By”, asking themselves three questions:

  1. Does this action attempt to deceive anyone or allow anyone to be deceived?

  2. Does this action gain or allow the gain of privilege or advantage to which I or someone else would not otherwise be entitled?

  3. Would I be dissatisfied by the outcome if I were on the receiving end of this action?

Answering “yes” to even one of these questions means the action violates the Honor Code.

We hold ourselves AND others accountable and openly address anyone and anything that compromises this culture. Accountability is the center of gravity, the core of everything else.

Ultimately, whatever set of factors you have put into your Life Equation, “Accountability” is the one ingredient that MUST be included. In that single item, you reflect on where I’ve been, where I am today, and where I’m going. Without those reference points, you have too much room for error.

Limit them by fierce critical path planning, but OWN your failures. Learn from them. And demonstrate to others that each mistake is an opportunity to learn and become a better person.

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