Never Walk by a Mistake

January 15, 2020 | Roger and Susie Engelau

For most of us, accountability only happens once frustration boils over! It’s not thoughtful and planned; rather, it’s reactionary and out of control.

The 1st woman in US history to achieve the rank of 4-star general, Gen. Ann Dunwoody, said the most important lesson she learned was about accountability. The lesson was from her first platoon sergeant, who said “never walk by a mistake.” If you do, you just set a new lower standard.

Gen. Dunwoody has shared the story many times. She saw a soldier in uniform walking down the street with his hands in his pockets—a big no-no in the military. She had the choice to walk by the soldier without addressing this seemingly small, probably unintentional mistake. If she let it slide, however, she would be setting a new lower standard. Instead, she approached the soldier and in a caring way pointed out the importance of accuracy and attention to detail. In other words, she held him accountable.

Roger frequently says that one of the most valuable lessons he learned while a cadet at the US Military Academy at West Point is that “a leader is responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen.” Talk about accountability!  But to maximize your leadership skill, you must embrace that level of accountability. And to maximize the potential of your small to mid-size business, every leader must embrace that level of accountability.

Accountability is holding yourself accountable AND holding your people accountable.

The importance of accountability

When you can’t rely on your people, you end up doing the work. Then you’re a micro-manager (and no one wants to be that)! You get sucked in to doing the work and it keeps you from getting enough altitude to lead effectively. Or maybe you experience this—when someone in your company violates a promise or commitment to a standard, some small business leaders use it as an excuse not to delegate.

Accountability is about setting standards. It’s about living up to the brand that you’re trying to present.  Accountability is about getting stuff done and moving things forward.

How do you practically create a culture of accountability in your small business?

Go to curiosity before you go to anger

First and foremost, please, please, please, in that moment when you identify a violation, go to curiosity before you go to anger.

This means you must avoid the Fundamental Attribution Error!  Instead of attributing situational reasons to a person’s behavior, we tend to attribute personal reasons. Personal reasons sound like “he never listens!” or “she’s a bad employee!” or “he’s a jerk; he’s lazy!”  Then we take it as a personal, even intentional affront, righteous indignation and anger boil up, and we attack. The truth is, it’s rarely a personal reason and almost always situational. You can always attribute the failure to one of two things: the person’s willingness or the person’s ability. Since most employees want to do a good job, the failure usually has to do with ability. It usually comes back to a lack of the right communication, a lack of training, a lack of role clarity, a lack of the right materials or resources, or environmental factors like work layout or temperature.

The book Crucial Accountability is a great “how to” book to help you make accountability a foundation of your culture in a way that uplifts instead of degrades. In it, the authors Kerry PattersonJoseph GrennyRon McMillanAl SwitzlerDavid H. Maxfield break down willingness and ability into 6 sources that influence human behavior.

For a good accountability tool, you could use Inspire Results’ 90-Day Action Plan (find it on our website). With it, you list the 5 or so most important goals for the next 90 days, then list actions required to accomplish each, along with who is responsible and by when. Then you meet with people regularly and you both have a copy of the 90-Day Action Plan to guide your discussion.

View accountability as a positive

Don’t look at accountability as a negative.  Accountability allows you to be fully alive and fully engaged. When you’re in flow, you’re maximizing your creativity and innovation. And when you accomplish the goal, you feel euphoric!

Embrace accountability and ensure every leader in your organization is embracing accountability.