The 7 Most Common Accountability Excuses and How to Avoid Them

HR Management
by Stephen Bruce, PhD, PHR

“Not my job,” “No one told me,” and other accountability excuses cause more damage than you might imagine, says consultant Rick Lepsinger. In today’s Advisor, his tips for avoiding these “tickets to slide.”

No one told me the project was due Friday!”
“But Bob’s the team leader—it’s his job to see everyone knows when priorities change.”

“It’s not our department’s responsibility to pick up the slack when another department drops the ball.”

If these tickets to slide are rampant at your workplace then you have an accountability problem, says Lepsinger, president of OnPoint Consulting, and author of Closing the Execution Gap: How Great Leaders and Their Companies Get Results (Jossey-Bass, 2010).

Accountability avoidance “diminishes execution and individual and team performance, and creates and reinforces a culture of blame. While everyone is busy pointing fingers,” Lepsinger says, “deadlines don’t get met, work remains below standard, and customers stay dissatisfied.”

Accountability Dodge Angers Top Performers

“Plus, the accountability dodge negatively impacts your top performers,” he adds. “They’re often asked to clean up the messes left by poor performers, which wears them out and builds resentment. Meanwhile, their counterparts, who are less accountable and less willing to take responsibility, enjoy a lighter workload—which is, in effect, a reward for poor performance.”

So why don’t we consistently hold people accountable for results? There are several reasons. In fact, Lepsinger believes there are seven assumptions and misunderstandings—he calls them “Tickets to Slide”—that contribute to this phenomenon.


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Ticket to Slide #1: ‘This Too Shall Pass’

The “wait and hope” syndrome assumes that poor performance will improve on its own over time. “They’ll learn,” we say in the (often futile) hope that we’ll never actually need to have a conversation about meeting commitments and delivering results. Or, we assume that people know what they should be doing, and that this was simply a blip on the radar screen. “I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt this time,” we say. Problem is, “this time” often turns into “next time,” followed by, “What? It happened again?”

Ticket to Slide #2: ‘They Know How I Feel’

You just responded in your “I’m dissatisfied” voice and put on your “I’m very disappointed” face. That should do it, right? Well, maybe not, says Lepsinger.

“Most of us like to assume that sending indirect messages and subtle signals has not only made our dissatisfaction known but clarified what needs to happen differently—and how it needs to happen,” says Lepsinger. Yes, it’s a “highly unlikely outcome,” but many of us choose it to avoid a more direct discussion of the problem and the need to take responsibility.

Ticket to Slide #3: ‘It Will Turn into an Argument’

Even if the other person is not difficult to work with, it’s a safe bet that he or she will likely have a different point of view.

“Many leaders are certain that these types of uncomfortable conversations will turn into arguments,” notes Lepsinger. “They rationalize that it’s better to let it go and avoid the conflict. But while that may be easier in the short term, in the long run you may find that the situation has snowballed into a problem that is vastly more difficult to deal with.”


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Ticket to Slide #4: ‘I Made My Expectations Clear. (I Think …)’

One reason you may avoid holding others accountable is that you have not set clear expectations. Either you haven’t clarified what you want done, what “good looks like,” or when you want it done. Without this base, don’t be surprised when you encounter more than one point of view or when conversations turn into arguments.

“Remember: Everything you ask of your employees can be either measured or known,” says Lepsinger. “Even qualitative outputs such as customer service or quality have components that we use to know when they have been done well. Those are the things for which we can set expectations and monitor and measure.”

In tomorrow’ Advisor, the rest of Lepsinger’s tickets to slide, plus an introduction to a unique library of leadership training materials.

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  1. Anonymous        
    July 31, 2011 6:44 pm

    I work with a couple of people who are good at “passing the buck.”  Their excuse will be “it got busy” “I didn’t understand”, or the best “I told so, and so to do it.”  It all just means that I have to double check everything and make sure it is done correctly.  

  2. Anonymous        
    August 8, 2011 7:52 am

    Rick

    Great article. I love your “Tickets to Slide.” I am continually amazed by how common these leadership communication mistakes in the workplace are.

    Last year I actually compiled my own list of leadership and workplace communication mistakes, which you and others may find useful as a compliment to your “Tickets to Slide.” The white paper I wrote is called, “The 7 Deadliest Sins of Leadership & Workplace Communication” and is available as a free download at http://www.HowToImproveLeadershipCommunication.com

  3. Anonymous        
    August 8, 2011 8:28 am

    The point about letting some people slide negatively impacting star performers and undermining their morale is critical. Because the star performers will pick up the slack. Failure to hold an employee who is not meeting expectations risks losing the star performers. However, it requires setting clear expectations and regular follow through as well as the willingness to terminate if performance does not improve. Star performers are wondering when the slacker is ever going to be held accountable. They are watching management and holding management accountable.