This is the third article in a series of twelve about Self-Handicapping Leadership by Phillip Decker and Jordan Mitchell. All articles in this series can be read without knowledge of the previous ones. Please find an overview of the articles at the end of this article.
Recap on Self-Handicapping Leadership
In previous articles, we have discussed the potential harm of impression management techniques – in particular, self-handicapping. Self-handicapping produces a ‘before-the-fact’ explanation for potential failure and helps an individual when he or she is feeling uncertain. It is a slippery slope to poor leadership, because leaders who rely on these “face-saving” strategies rarely find innovative solutions (see article #1 and article #2).
Furthermore, we are suggesting that mastery goal orientation can prevent self-handicapping (see article #2). Those with mastery goal orientation focus on learning, developing competencies, and meeting challenges. Hence they do not feel the uncertainty that leads to self-handicapping.
We expect leaders to take charge, establish strategy, be accountable, and hold their employees accountable. These critical leadership skills often fall victim to self-handicapping. Accountability is a personal choice to demonstrate the ownership necessary to achieve the desired results – to “see it, own it, solve it, and do it” (Conners and Smith, 2011).
Being accountable requires a level of ownership that includes making and honoring personal commitments and incorporates liability for one’s actions. In business, accountability is required on multiple levels. A leader can be personally accountable, responsible for making employees, peers, and bosses accountable, and/or responsible for the organization’s accountability.
Leadership and Self-handicapping Excuses
Watching the news might persuade one to believe that nobody is at fault for anything anymore; rather, poor performance is deemed to be the result of disease, addiction, chemical imbalance, the other political party, the boss, or the company – nothing but self-handicapping excuses. Many in business do their best to avoid accountability because it can be used as ammunition for blame or punishment.
Picture yourself in a team meeting and the leader says to the group, “I’m holding all of you accountable for the goals we have established in this meeting.” There are real reasons for worry in this situation: team members may not have enough time to meet the goals, they may not know what they are individually responsible for, they might not have all the tools, skills, and authority needed to accomplish the tasks, or they could be just plain worried that the boss is setting them up for blame in the case of failure.
In doing this, the leader often creates an obstacle for himself – pushing his or her subordinates into self-handicapping mode in order to protect their image in case things do not work out (Evans, 2008). The leader is doing it to protect his or her image – and likely not learning to be better at being accountable or confronting others’ avoidance of accountability.
Delegation of Tasks
When leaders delegate tasks, they must delegate responsibility, authority, and accountability.
■ Responsibility – An obligation to perform assigned duties to the best of one’s ability.
■ Authority – The power assigned to a leader in order to achieve certain organizational objectives, backed up with access to the training, tools, and other resources required to get the job done.
■ Accountability – The answerability for the performance of the assigned duties – living with the outcomes.
Most leaders do not do a good job of passing on authority to subordinates when they are delegating responsibility and accountability. This could be the result of a controlling attitude, not knowing how, or expediency in the delegation. Irrespective of the reason why, it is clearly self-handicapping behavior and it is what makes accountability such an issue in most organizations.
Many of the new tools developed in organizations require a collaborative culture, but turf protection dies hard. For example, while the leadership of an organization may promote quality improvement, mid-level leaders can sabotage it without even knowing. Power comes with departmental budget authority, not from cross-functional programs designed to increase collective accountability – such as those for quality improvement. Attending only to one’s own departmental goals over the organization’s goals is a form of self-handicapping.
Accepting or Avoiding Accountability
Leaders and subordinates always have a choice to accept accountability or to avoid it (Smith, 2016). Avoiding accountability is a self-handicap that quickly leads to the “Box of Blame.” The leader blames the subordinates for the failure in order to protect his or her own image and then the workers blame the leader right back for setting them up to take the blame.
When self-assured leaders make the choice for accountability, you typically don’t see them on the news giving excuses; their workers know what to do and how to do it. If not, the non-self-handicapping leader chooses positive action over words and excuses. They apologize, move forward, and find solutions. They ask “What?” and “How?” instead of “Who?” (blame), “When?” (procrastination), or “Why?” (being a victim) (Miller, 2001).
Instead of asking “Why me?” or “Why don’t other people do their jobs right?” one should only ask, “What needs to be done?” and “How can I solve that?”
These questions are the keys to a mastery goal-orientation. Leaders: avoiding situations where they anticipate there may be conflict and confrontation, not holding peers accountable, holding staff accountable reactively rather than proactively, or a leader surrounding himself with a loyal group of direct-report staff that don’t call him or her on his or her bad actions are all means of avoiding accountability. These are all self-imposed behavioral self-handicaps.
Have you ever been on a team where you could have contributed positively to a project, but there was something in your head that told you not to because of a high likelihood of failure? You chose to drag your feet or keep a low profile, because you feared to be part of that “group that failed.” Doing nothing may be safe, but it is avoiding accountability – and handicapping.
Sometimes we aren’t accountable, because no one has told us how to be. Being constantly late to meetings, starting meetings late, letting things slip through the cracks, telling people what they want to hear instead of “I can’t get that done on your timeframe,” and not preparing for tough situations are all forms of expedient avoidance of accountability.
How to Turn Things Around
It can be difficult to take personal accountability. It requires a leader to be secure within him/herself, have courage, and have healthy, respectful relationships with co-workers. It takes time and planning to face things one doesn’t like – such as confrontation. Use our formula: What and How questions. Step up and confess as soon as you realize what went wrong. Take charge if you have not already done so. Don’t try to shift the blame; persistently drive for solutions. Don’t play the “if only” game – justifying failures by saying you could turn things around if only x, y, or z would happen – or would have happened. Learn your lesson; either don’t do it again or change the process to change the outcome.
Healthy, respectful relationships make being accountable much easier; however, this can be a chicken-and-egg situation – which comes first? Is accountability required to have a healthy relationship or do healthy, respectful relationships cause accountability?
We think you most likely have to start with accountability to build the trust required in healthy relationships. On the other hand, if you find yourself in a group of dysfunctional co-workers, you can probably be accountable every day and still not have healthy relationships. In these situations, you can only do what is in your power – that is, be honest, open, brave, and accountable. Over time, individuals who are drawn to that type of relationship will gather around you and thus start to form a healthy relationship network. The negative, unproductive, and time-consuming folk are not drawn to the assertive, humble, accountable types.
“I am not – and never will be – good enough”
A habit of avoiding accountability can even develop as a slow, relentless accumulation of thoughts about your faults and a message that those faults are permanent; in short, “I am not good,” and “I’ll never be good enough.” Then it does not matter how well you perform; you discount it, and may even view yourself as a fraud when things go well. This is kneejerk, automatic self-handicapping to avoid accountability. If you often believe you are responsible when you are not, practice perfectionism, or are highly critical of yourself, start challenging those thoughts.
Also, get over the idea that making mistakes is a bad thing – it is a key to mastery goal orientation. Aren’t we all supposed to be building learning organizations? Even if bosses want to hold you accountable after the fact and the organization is dysfunctional, you can still be accountable to yourself and your employees. Being accountable to your word, acknowledging mistakes, and then working to make things right will cause people to respect you.
Leadership by Confrontation, not Avoidance
Patrick Lencioni (2002) says that failing to hold someone accountable is ultimately an act of selfishness. For most leaders, it is safer to concentrate on work than it is to call a peer or boss on his or her avoidance of accountability. When one confronts a peer on lack of accountability, he or she becomes subject to being called out on his or her behavior (glasshouses). Additionally, most leaders don’t like to talk about behavior – or anything nontechnical.
Avoidance of accountability is often one of the major dysfunctions in teams. We have all been part of a team that we knew had an accountability problem. Team members often exhibit poor behavior and the other members do not call their attention to it. Sometimes, team members have learned that being difficult intimidates others, who then accept their negative behavior as “typical.”
Robert Bramson (1981), in Coping with Difficult People, suggests there are seven types of difficult people and describes in detail how to cope with each. We highly recommend this source for coping responses and provide a table summarizing them in our book, Self-Handicapping Leadership (Decker & Mitchell, 2016). The key to being accountable in leadership is confrontation, not avoidance. To do otherwise is self-handicapping.
Baby Steps to Success
Understanding what one does to self-handicap and eliminating these excuses is the first step. Changing behavior is the next step. We suggest that one starts with baby steps – focus on the things to do tomorrow or this week that can be a foundation for everything else to follow. Sometimes we don’t even take the first step, because it all seems so overwhelming and intimidating. Don’t give up before you even start. Success in baby steps reinforces success in subsequent larger steps and builds self-efficacy. To practice and reinforce accountability start with these baby steps:
■ Arrive at your next meeting early and start it precisely on time.
■ Announce ownership of one thing publicly to employees or peers and do it—all in one day.
■ Step up and confess as soon as you realize something you did went wrong. Say you are sorry out loud. And ask yourself only What/How to solve it.
■ Develop and write down a smart goal— specific, measurable, achievable, results-oriented, and time-bound – specifying each element for an employee before you start delegation.
Great leaders trust employees and allow them to take ownership of their jobs; they do it by being open and accountable and by demanding accountability from those around them. They believe that employees are capable and will do the right thing for the organization if given the responsibility, authority, and accountability necessary. They provide all of the authority and expect accountability. Furthermore, they expect accountability of themselves and their peers.
Great leaders do not avoid their own or their employees’ accountability to the organization or community. They actively confront the lack of accountability at every level. Finally, they know that employees, who do not trust their leaders, will not choose to be accountable.
Bramson, R.M. (1981). Coping with Difficult People. Garden City, New York, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.
Connors, R. and Smith, T. (2011). Adapted from “How to Create a ‘Culture of Accountability’”.
Decker, P., & Mitchell, J. (2016). Self-Handicapping Leadership: The Nine Behaviors Holding Back Employees, Managers, and Companies, and How to Overcome Them. Pearson FT Press.
Evans, HJ. (2008). Winning with Accountability: The Secret Language of High-Performing Organizations, Corner Stone Leadership Institute.
Miller, J. (2001). QBQ: The Question Behind the Question, Putman. See http://qbq.com/qbq-the-question-behind-the-question/
Lencioni, P. (2002), The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Jossey-Bass.
Smith, C. (2016) Adapted from “Locus of Control: Are You in Charge of Your Destiny?”
List of Articles in Self-Handicapping Leadership Series