Personal Accountability Isn’t Enough to Spark Organisational Change - Leadership Development Insights | The Mindful Leader

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Personal Accountability Isn’t Enough to Spark Organisational Change

by | May 11, 2021

As a mindfulness coach for high-level executives, I have noticed something interesting. Many of the leaders I work with have spent years blaming other people for lack of results in their organisational change efforts. As they start on their mindfulness journey they then swing to the opposite end of the scale, taking 100 per cent responsibility for everything that happens in their team or organisation.

100 per cent accountability, however, isn’t the correct response for taking ownership. What’s really needed for organisational change is 200 per cent accountability.

Dysfunction and poor performance aren’t entirely the fault of either the leader or the team. Everyone shares responsibility, and everyone must take full accountability for organisational change — but only for that which they control.

Thinking of accountability in terms of, “the result of my putting in 100 per cent” isn’t accurate. The equation really should be viewed as 100 per cent from the leader plus 100 per cent from each team member, equalling 200 per cent accountability.

A partnership in which one person takes full accountability and the other takes only partial accountability is dysfunctional. It simply doesn’t work. If you hold yourself accountable without holding your partner accountable, you create a narcissist.

The saying “It takes two to tango” applies here. It takes two to cause dysfunction, but it also takes two to fix that dysfunction. And of course this principle applies to whole teams and organisations, especially when it comes to organisational change.

Organisational scientist Peter Senge puts it like this: “Personal change and organizational change are always two sides of the same coin, and the fantasy we often carry around that somehow my organization will change without me changing is truly crazy. And what will inevitably be communicated if you are operating from that fantasy is that you need to change, but not me. And if there is any one absolute, sure-fire, 100 per cent reliable source of resistance to change, it’s that.”

How 200 Per Cent Accountability Creates Organisational Change

I once worked with a struggling CEO. When people did not meet his expectations he became emotionally abusive, then angrily took their workload on himself. He brought us in to help him develop real accountability, with the ultimate goal of organisational change. But ironically, he wanted us to change his people and his systems, to change anything but himself. He could not see the links between his behaviour and the organisational outcomes. In fact, like so many leaders, he was not even aware that his behaviour was supporting the exact opposite of the organisational change he was trying to achieve.

We made an agreement based on the concept of 200 per cent accountability, meaning he was 100 per cent responsible for changing his self-sabotaging behaviour, while his team were 100 per cent responsible for delivering their outcomes. It was a contract of trust and responsibility, with clear consequences and accountability for change on both sides. Five years later, his team’s revenue and profit have nearly doubled and he is no longer engaging in his self-sabotaging behaviour.

Deven, a CEO and client of mine, once shared a story with me about how mindfulness and 200 per cent accountability inspired organisational change in his company. As his company was going through a fast growth phase, Deven needed to take on a bigger role in the company.

As he relinquished some duties to take on new ones, other executives were required to step in and fill the void. Things were slipping through the cracks and important tasks weren’t getting done. He was feeling exhausted, stressed and anxious, and he started behaving in disrespectful ways. As we all do at times, he lost his way behaviourally.

The turning point came when his team stepped up and told him they were unhappy with his behaviour. They didn’t mind that he was holding people accountable, but they were unhappy with his style.

As all the best leaders do, Deven self-reflected and took responsibility for his actions. He recognised the state of stress he was leading from, and committed to re-commence his mindfulness meditation practice and re-centre himself.

A few weeks later he met with all his senior executives. They discussed the problems and came up with a solution that everyone contributed to and was happy with.

Deven told me,

“The only reason we were able to even have those conversations is because I had pulled myself away and addressed my own dysfunction. If I had tried to say something earlier, when I was grumpy, irritable and anxiety-ridden all the time, it would have just seemed like I wasn’t taking accountability for my actions. And that would have been the case — I would have just been blaming others for not stepping up. I was in a reactive state.

“But once I was able to get that calmness of mind, then I was able to take accountability for my own actions first, and then hold my team accountable in a kind, calm and patient way. When I approached the team, it came from a loving, inspirational place, not a reactive, anxiety-driven place.

“Mindfulness makes all the difference in my ability to deal with frustrating situations appropriately and to hold myself and everyone else accountable without making anyone feel shamed or belittled.”

Deven’s story reminded me of a time when I confessed to a client that I had been acting dysfunctionally with my own team and that I was busy course-correcting myself. He looked at me in shock and said, “Hang on a minute. You’ve been practising mindfulness for decades. Surely you should have eliminated your dysfunction a long time ago and learned how to always be impeccable?”

I remember laughing hard. “No,” I replied, “that would be seriously delusional.”

Yes, mindfulness helps us move slowly but surely toward consistently healthy behaviour. But there will always be blind spots and challenges. The real gift of ownership and mindfulness is that it allows us to correct course so much faster. It keeps us humble and real.

Above all, mindfulness teaches us that we are fallible! And that is one of its greatest gifts. When we are mindful, we don’t waste time and energy defending and rationalising our actions. We take a good, undefended look and get on with re-engaging in the healthiest possible way, just as Deven did.

Mindfulness gives us both the insight to recognise that we are accountable and the tools for shifting into a new way of being, behaving and seeing the world that reduces our suffering and that of others. And that’s the ultimate purpose of organisational change.

Organisational Change Requires a Culture of Accountability

Mindful leaders create a culture of compassionate accountability by not participating in the blame game. Their goal is not to find some person or some thing to blame. Instead, they seek to objectively analyse each situation, looking for what can be learned from it. They compassionately look for how team members may have contributed to a failure, not in order to say, “See what you did wrong?” but instead to say, “What can we learn from this, and do differently next time?”

Mindful leaders separate character from competence. There’s a world of difference between a person who displays a lack of character or consciously violates values and a person who makes an innocent mistake based on a lack of knowledge or skill.

A story told by Thomas Watson, the former CEO of IBM, illustrates this well. When an employee made a critical mistake that cost the company $600 000, Thomas was asked if he was going to fire the employee. He responded, “No, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody else to hire his experience?”

That’s the kind of culture that makes it emotionally safe to fail—and that’s the culture that can achieve organisational change. Allowing people to innocently fail stops the blame game in its tracks; when people don’t fear punishment for failure, they have no reason to blame anyone else. They are more inclined to learn rather than get defensive. When they do fail, they realize that’s part of the pathway to success, and they are more open to feedback because they recognize their failure is not a deal-breaker, instead it’s an opportunity learn, revise and try again. They are freed up to more clearly and honesty see and admit their mistakes because the cost of doing so is a sum benefit, rather than a sum loss.

Ultimately, as leaders we cannot inspire organisational change until we learn to change ourselves. We cannot maintain presence, aliveness or credibility if we blame others or rationalise unmindful behaviour.

Taking accountability may seem like the hard path. But remember, it is easier to take responsibility than attempt to control everyone else and every life circumstance. In this insight lies a great freedom, and a truly a priceless gift for yourself and for those whom you connect with every day.

The next time something goes wrong, remember that taking 100 per cent accountability isn’t the answer—and neither is blaming everyone but yourself. To support and invite a healthy, successful company culture and organisational change, remember true accountability is a 200 per cent sum.

Organisational change requires both sides, leaders and team members, taking responsibility and accountability for their share of the equation.

Because sharing is caring