Corner Office-Pin the Tail on the Donkey
Remember playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey? I have memories of being blindfolded and spun around, then attempting to pin a tail on a paper donkey hung on the wall—while still blindfolded and dizzy. With my friends laughing while they watched, I pinned the tail onto what felt like the spot, but when I pulled off the blindfold I found I’d pinned it on an entirely different wall across the room.
This game has provided birthday party entertainment for generations, but when you stop and think about it, doesn’t it seem kind of cruel? Being disoriented then ridiculed for your best efforts to get things straight? What kind of emotional torture is this, anyway?!
Unfortunately, an adult version of this game is played every day in corporations. We create environments in which uninformed and confused employees are forced to pin blame on whatever they can find. It’s known as “passing the buck,” “finger-pointing,” or “the blame game,” and it takes the place of choosing to act with accountability and humility.
Two books that I’ve read recently have shared the same theme: Decision Points, by former President George W. Bush, and The Mentor Leader, by Super Bowl–winning former NFL Coach Tony Dungy.
President Bush wrote his memoir around the theme of accountability for important decisions he has made, beginning with his battle with alcoholism at age 40 and continuing through his second term as president. He explains the complexity of his decision-making process and takes responsibility for all of his choices, right or wrong. He trusts and welcomes history’s future judgment on them. It’s a shining example of personal accountability.
If you’re not into politics and would rather learn about leadership from a respected sports figure, then Coach Dungy’s book is a good read. Again, the theme of leading with humility is evident. Dungy tells about his mentor teaching him that his only job as a coach is to help his players become better people and players. It’s not about the outcome of the game, in other words, but about the players and the values they acquire by playing.
Being accountable for your own actions and decisions is part of that journey, according to Dungy, and is the backbone of successful organizations. “Nothing is more deflating to morale than to have a poor outcome pinned on someone who doesn’t deserve it,” he says.
A Call to Personal Accountability
In our families, religious organizations, schools, neighborhoods, governments, and businesses, we now avoid accountability. As I reflected on this, I realized that as a baby boomer, I have to take some accountability for it. Think about the climate we created in the 1960s, when “If it feels good, do it” and “It’s not my job, man!” became typical responses to problems.
An attitude of “It’s not my problem” now permeates society like a bad virus. Politicians and the media say that this blame game is what’s wrong with business leaders in our country and that it’s the root of the economic recession. They say too many people believed it wasn’t their job to intervene when they saw signs that something was amiss. Besides, no one wanted to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs.
The tendency to avoid accountability is alive in other aspects of our society, but I’m focusing on what business leaders can do to improve their organizations. Our major responsibility is to create a corporate culture of personal accountability.
As self-help organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous have learned, you can’t solve a problem unless you first admit that you have one. For leaders to admit that their organizations have problems requires strength, self-confidence, and a willingness to make the company’s difficult issues and failures transparent. This is the prerequisite to proposing changes that will solve the problems.
Being transparent might mean redefining failure. The narrower our definition, the less chance there is that we’ll fail. Because our collective tendency is to shed accountability, defining failure broadly is a countercultural and difficult task. But if we care about our customers, our employees, our companies, and the meaning of value, we have to include in our definition the failure to service customers, to find and seize opportunity, to make timely introductions of new products, to properly allocate assets, and to create value, to name a few examples. Instilling personal accountability for failure, from the boardroom to the mailroom, is the mark of an effective leader.
Another effective step is to ensure that the business has a clearly defined vision and mission, corporate values, and goals and objectives. Think again about the Pin the Tail on the Donkey game: You can’t reprimand someone for missing the target if they are blindfolded, disoriented, or misinformed. By the same token, it’s impossible to offer real praise for good work if your employees are operating in a vacuum.
For people to be truly motivated, they need to know how their efforts fit into the bigger picture. A clear understanding of accountabilities is what cements this. Be specific in your expectations and direct in connecting each person’s efforts to the unit’s and company’s bottom line.
Many good books are out there about how to create a mission, goals, and objectives, and then evaluate how well they are working. But the first step is to look in the mirror. Above all, practice accountability yourself. The most self-referential form of failure is the failure to see that you’re failing. Remember, as the occupant of the corner office, “It is your job, man!”