Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Not My Fault. Oh?

We've all heard this sorry chorus (and if we put on our Big Boy/Big Girl duds, we can admit that we've even said things like this):

  • That's wasn't my job
  • The customer didn't get me the information I needed
  • I was drunk, but I wasn't the cause of the accident
  • My hard-drive failed
  • I have a slow metabolism
  • It was the traffic
  • It wasn't me.
We belong to a culture of decreasing accountability.

That's why this episode of This American Life stopped me from my Saturday night's reading. When he was 18 years old, Darin Strauss, author of Chang and Eng and More Than It Hurts You, killed a girl. He was driving--sober and straight--along a highway when she swerved her bicycle into the path of his car. There was nothing he could do to save her. He describes his "stomach-turning" behavior at points where he was more concerned about himself--how he might appear--than about the girl the car he was driving struck.

While there was nothing he could have done, Darin's story repeats this refrain: "the girl I killed." He's clear that, while her bike turned crisply into his lane, he was piloting the car that intersected with her and her bike. He was responsible, as the instrument of her death.

Life has become about "who did it" and "who's to blame," with biz owners, executives, sales reps, technicians, husbands, politician, and children taking sometimes draconian steps to avoid blame...or, better, to shift it to someone else. Jack Welch was lionized as a "genius" for his competitive stance "Be first or second in the market or begone." The detritus of Jack Welch's turn at the GE rudder gave us "rank and yank," an "HR system" based on the Vitality Curve wherein the top 20% get raises and promotions, the bottom 10% get the door and the middle 70% get to keep their jobs. To keep your job, one would have to be either in the first or second ranking. Those on the third rung are dispatched, regardless of their contributions. After several iterations, GE professional and execs, speaking privately, of course, have said that the chorus of "it wasn't me" is deafening, as people struggle to look better than their neighbor as the strongest players in the industry compete with their equally-stellar peers. The workplace culture has become increasingly toxic, with less collaboration, sharing of knowledge assets and mentoring? Who would want to be mentored if that mentor could "turn state's evidence" and become party to one's termination. HR staffers, under Welch's system, were reduced to ranch hands who conducted the annual culling.

I remember a course I took some years ago that served up a brutal take on responsibility. "Responsibility," they said "begins with being 'cause in the matter' of one's life." Here's the entire quote:

Responsibility begins with the willingness to be cause in the matter of one's life. Ultimately, it is a context from which one chooses to live. Responsibility is not burden, fault, praise, blame, credit, shame or guilt. In responsibility, there is no evaluation of good or bad, right or wrong. There is simply what's so, and your stand. Being responsible starts with the willingness to deal with a situation from the view of life that you are the generator of what you do, what you have and what you are. That is not the truth. It is a place to stand. No one can make you responsible, nor can you impose responsibility on another. It is a grace you give yourself - an empowering context that leaves you with a say in the matter of life.
-Werner Erhard
Claim no responsibility? You're a victim and have admitted that there's nothing that can be done.


As a result of my participation in this program (drank the Kool-Ade as with a protein shot), I don't offer excuses--really stylized cover-ups--which are about me rather than a sincere apology and offer to make it right, which is about the person I'd fallen short with. No one has ever cared about my excuses and--here's the money shot--most of those excuses could have been avoided.

  • Not your job? Tell the boss that there's a gap in the job design rather than letting it be a surprise.
  • Missing customer info? Tell them so and that you won't be able to get then what they need in a timely way
  • Drunk and talking to the police? Suck it up and blow, hard, into the Breathalyzer
  • Hard-drive failure? Set up that backup you've been talking about and pretending wasn't a priority
  • Got a slow metabolism? Move!
  • Heavy traffic and you've got a meeting? Leave earlier. Most of us in Indy know where the trouble spots are on I465. Traffic is just an excuse.
  • Not you? Who else, then?

In an instance I got to hear a leader take responsibility back. Their company had deleted my text messaging ability, then my picture messaging, and finally -- Poof! -- there went my ability to make phone calls. After serveral calls, several reps and several hours, it was finally corrected. Then, I got a call from those people's manager. He had listened to recordings of the calls I'd made and was completely chagrinned: "That's not the kind of service we're committed to." He said, baldly, "We dropped the ball and sucked up a whole lot of your time" and promised to retrain his staff and to credit my plan for the days of lost service.

I was so stunned I couldn't speak.

Full Episode: Darin's piece is about 9 1/2 minutes into it.


darinstrauss said...

thaks for your kind words on my piece on NPR. I was wary of doing writing the piece,
at first -- but then I got so many messages from people who had been in situations like mine, or who were just dealing with grief of some other kind, and found my piece helpful -- that I'm very glad i did it.

Anyway, thanks again for writing,

p.s.: If you send me your address, I'll send you a copy of my newest book. It's not about the accident at all, but i think it's informed by the lessons I learned from having experienced it....
If you want a free book, email me @
Thanks again -d

Scott Forgey said...

Most of the work that I do with Fortune 500 companies to small companies lies in the world of accountability.

Mostly it is seen at the enemy. To be avoided at all costs. Run away!

Embracing accountability as a way to learn and create the next success is powerful. When there is nothing wrong...there is nothing to do but learn.

The trick is creating a conversational environment in which people are free to be (and safe to be) accountable.

Scott Forgey
Sage Associates