When The Buck Stops . . . There
I grew up watching movies about cowboys in the Wild West, with scenes of rough-and-tumble gunslingers gambling around a poker table. The tension was so thick I’d sit on the edge of my seat, ready to cheer, because I knew that at any moment one cowboy would accuse another of cheating and a shoot-out would erupt. Of course, the bad guy would die and the good guy would be hailed as a hero and ride away on his trusty horse.
Apparently these scenes weren’t too far from the truth, as the term “pass the buck” seems to have originated from the game of poker during the 19th century. Just like in those old cowboy movies, players were suspicious of cheating, so a marker was used to indicate who was next in line to deal. This marker was often a knife called a “buck” because of its handle fashioned from a buck’s antler; when the dealer completed his turn, he then “passed the buck.” Over the years, the phrase evolved into meaning that someone was evading responsibility by passing it on to someone else. (Silver dollars were later used as markers, so this was also probably the origin of the word “buck” as slang for dollar.)
The most famous use of the phrase, of course, was by President Harry S Truman, who had a desk sign saying “The Buck Stops Here!” in the White House. Truman referred to this sign in several public statements, including his farewell address in 1953 when he said, “The president—whoever he is—has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody.”
Now turn the calendar forward 60 years to today, and consider personal responsibility and our political leaders. Finding a politician who takes personal responsibility is rarer than a family dinner where no one is texting! Increasingly, pleas of ignorance and finger-pointing are the norm—the failed rollout of the federal health care program, secret spying on allied heads of state, and the lane closings on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge are a few recent examples.
The phenomenon doesn’t rear its head only in political circles, but seems to be a large-scale societal issue. Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s recent death from a suspected heroin overdose caused many to blame drug dealers, instead of accepting that Hoffman was responsible for his overdose.
When the subprime mortgage crisis occurred in 2006, the public blamed Wall Street and big banks, bankers blamed borrowers for overleveraging, consumer advocates blamed mortgage lenders, and lenders blamed politicians.
In these examples, the negative consequences of “passing the buck” are evident: treating drug addicts as victims simply glosses over the heroin epidemic in our country, while playing the blame game on the subprime mortgage crisis has slowed our economic recovery.
Playing the blame game doesn’t restore lost lives, heal injured people or solve financial hardship—nor does it address the underlying issues to make sure it never happens again.
Leaders who blame others lose the trust of their organizations and infect all employees with the bad habit of blame-gaming. In fact, recent studies have shown that being exposed to someone who blames others for a mistake was enough to cause people to blame others for completely unrelated failures. Researchers found that the goal of protecting one’s workplace image is a “germ” that spreads.
Fortunately, leaders can take affirmative steps to put a stop to these destructive behaviors. Here are common-sense ideas for making sure the buck stops at your organization:
Set an example. When mistakes happen, take ownership. You will gain the respect and loyalty of your employees and build trust in your leadership. As I’ve written many times, what you do will speak so loudly that nobody will hear what you have to say.
Build a culture of personal accountability. When people notice that you hold yourself accountable, they will recognize that taking responsibility is expected of them. And if you have set an example, you have the credibility to hold others accountable for their actions and not tolerate the blame game.
When blame needs to be assigned, do it constructively. As the frame displaying a picture of my late dog says, “Shed happens!” Sometimes failures need to be addressed publicly, but don’t create a public hanging. Rather, state that the goal of the organization is to learn from the situation. In organizations that consistently pass the buck on mistakes or outright failure, or publicly criticize employees for failing, employees learn to protect themselves by not taking risks or speaking up with new ideas.
Reward appropriate risk. To avoid a culture where employees are afraid to try anything new, let it be known that you encourage new ideas and calculated risks. And if it doesn’t turn out to be the greatest idea since sliced bread, praise people for trying and being accountable in finding a better way to help your organization.
When employees see leaders passing the buck, they lose trust in leadership. Over time, their distrust and lack of engagement becomes the fabric of the organizational culture—and an enormous problem that can seriously damage productivity and performance. Especially in today’s knowledge-based organizations, personal responsibility is critical to building the commitment and creativity of employees.
Common sense dictates that organizations with leaders who accept personal responsibility and have “the buck stops here” attitude will be more efficient and productive than those that play the blame game. Maybe not as efficient as those cowboy movies where justice is immediate, but awfully darn close!
Mark W. Sheffert (firstname.lastname@example.org) is founder, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies, Inc., a Minneapolis-based performance improvement, board governance, and litigation advisory firm.