6 Words For Stopping Blame And Increasing Accountability

This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ

Sometimes when people mess up at work, they dodge accountability and shift the responsibility to someone else. This is called blame.

Far too many of us have experienced an employee missing a deadline and trying to throw a colleague under the bus for their mistake, like:

“I couldn’t get this report done on time because of that jerk Pat in accounting. Pat’s the one that never gives me the data on time, and that’s the reason my report was late. How can I be expected to get the report done on time when Pat is always holding up my data?”

Everyone is going to mess up at some point, but blaming others for mistakes is not a healthy or responsible coping mechanism.

One reason that blame is so unhealthy is that it’s aggressive and attacking. It’s one thing to make an excuse like “the internet crashed,” which points fingers at an inanimate object, but it’s quite another to cast aspersions about another person (or group of people). Those ‘other people’ will learn of the blame, hurt feelings will abound, the blame may be reciprocated, and on it goes. In other words, blame is highly contagious. 


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So when employees blame each other, it’s up to leaders to turn that blame into accountability. How? By using 6 simple words: “Let’s discuss what we CAN control.” Let me explain…

When someone blames, they’re basically trying to shift attention away from themselves. They’re saying ‘don’t look at me, look at that other person.’ And they’re doing it because they don’t want you to pin them down for whatever mistake they made. It’s similar to a magician distracting the audience while they’re pulling off the real trick somewhere else.

Blamers are typically quite good at derailing conversations and sending them in another direction. Let’s imagine your employee Pat is late with a report. You call Pat into your office and have this brief dialogue:

  • Boss: “Pat, the report I needed from you is past deadline.”
  • Pat: “Well I can’t possibly control that because Bob in Accounting didn’t give me the numbers I needed to finish the report.”

If Pat says their line with enough intensity, many bosses will get sucked into a conversation about Bob and how Bob didn’t get the numbers, or the Accounting Department, or whatever. And this allows Pat to sidestep any real accountability. Pat may escape a conversation about why they didn’t inform the boss of this problem sooner, or why they didn’t work more effectively with Bob, or why they didn’t submit the other parts of the report, etc. And all of those topics are more actionable than griping about Bob and the Accounting Department.

So instead, let’s redo that conversation using the 6 words I mentioned above: “Let’s discuss what we CAN control.”

  • Boss: “Pat, the report I needed from you is past deadline.”
  • Pat: “Well I can’t possibly control that because Bob in Accounting didn’t give me the numbers I needed to finish the report.”
  • Boss: “OK, I hear that, but I don’t want to talk about Bob. Let’s discuss what we CAN control.
  • Pat: “I told you, I don’t control anything. It’s Bob’s fault, not mine.”
  • Boss: “Listen, I don’t want to talk about Bob. Let’s discuss what we CAN control. I don’t want to talk about anybody else. I don’t want to talk about anything outside of our control. And right now, there are things we control. We control our reactions, we control certain parts of the reports, etc.”

In this scenario, you’re directing (and redirecting) the conversation back to the central issue: what you CAN control. This approach doesn’t allow the employee to dodge accountability, but neither is it a vicious reprimand. It’s a simple statement that says ‘we’re not changing topics, we’re not discussing other people, we’re only talking about what we CAN control.’

By not allowing the conversation to veer off track into an emotional blame game, the employee will be forced to start taking ownership. It moves the conversation away from fixing blame and onto fixing the issue.

Talking about issues we don’t control is, by definition, an exercise in futility. If we don’t control something, what’s the point of spending the next 30 minutes griping about it? We may as well gripe about the weather; it’s a waste of time and has absolutely no bearing on the weather.

But when we keep redirecting the conversation back to issues we actually DO control, we teach our employees that there is something controllable in every situation. And that, in turn, improves their accountability.

Mark Murphy is the founder of Leadership IQ, a New York Times bestselling author, a sought-after speaker, and he also teaches a series of weekly webinars for leaders.

Posted by Mark Murphy on 23 June, 2016 Communication Skills, Forbes, Leadership Skills | 0 comments
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