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Advisory Column: Your worst nightmare: Employee who won't accept responsibility

Published:Friday | March 27, 2015 | 3:45 PM

What should you do with a colleague, employee or boss who fails to accept responsibility?

It's an awful realisation. Suddenly, someone you work with shows you his true colours when placed under pressure. In a desperate attempt to avoid blame and guilt, he avoids taking responsibility.

He claims he 'didn't do it' and fends off attempts to hold him to account in any way. Once he starts running away, the conversation turns into a chase.

You try to make a difference, while he does his best to distance himself from feeling like a victim.

In moments such as this, there are no winners. If the other person is in a position of power, the loss can be great.

Witness the recent tragedy at National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA). As Kingston was covered in palls of dangerous smoke, it was impossible to find anyone willing to stand up and be accountable for what was happening.

Many working adults who watched events unfold felt uneasy as it brought to mind some of their most difficult, irresponsible colleagues.

It reminded me of a gardener who once gave my wife the following report after splitting the blade of our lawnmower on a rock: "It bruk".

He didn't say: "I broke it". Instead, his stance indicated that the mysterious outcome happened all on its own.

Apparently, in the minds of a few people, the fire at Riverton did the same.

When employees at all levels of an organisation adopt this mindset, they set themselves up as observers rather than actors, victims rather than agents. Their frame of mind places the entire organisation at risk of losing profits, customers, or in our case, fresh air to breathe.

More important, they unwittingly render themselves useless in preventing the event from happening again. To them, it's just a matter of having some better excuses the next time around.

It's a corrosive, contagious frame of mind that must be addressed because it can leave a whole organisation hapless.

What can the ordinary employee do to transform this mindset?

Step 1 - Separate responsibility from blame. In a workshop a few years ago, I introduced the term 'response-ability'. Inspired by the work of Werner Erhard, I defined the term as free of the usual negative connotations: blame, fault, guilt or shame. Instead, it's about putting oneself in a mental place to make a difference, especially when failure is possible, or even after it has occurred.

Those who are confused with regard to response-ability end up only running away - throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In other words, they don't want to feel bad so they surrender their power to act.

Step 2 - Show others the cost. When people are lost in blame-avoidance, trying to avoid negative feelings, they are momentarily blinded. Otherwise good people are unable to see the cost of abandoning their ability to act. You can help them see the bigger picture by sharing the impact of their blindness on you and others, dollarising it if possible.

Step 3 - Invite them to take action, even if they feel bad. People who are accountable appreciate that life is always a blend of successes and failures, but they don't only accept the former and ignore the latter. They are willing to 'take the heat' when things fall apart.

Taking the heat means saying: Yes, I helped to cause the unwanted result. This mindset is a must if they wish to empower themselves to fix problems once and for all.

If you can follow these three steps, even when others feel badly, you are helping to move the problem towards resolution.

This can be hard work, but it's easier to take the above actions if the person is willing.

With skilful coaching you can prevent further disasters by diverting their attention to the difference they can make and the high cost of the failure. If you can help them be consistently accountable at some point, it is even better, as they ignore their bruised feelings.

But that's not all. Here's an important twist.

The best place to start helping a colleague who is slipping into victim-like, don't-blame-me mode is to be a real-time role model for everything I have said so far.

In other words, assume personal responsibility for their powerless behaviour. Look to see where you can own the part you played in their failure to be 'response-able'.

As you look, learn. Then act to make a difference.

Jamaica would be a different place if more of us could take this stand on a regular basis. Some do it every day, but it remains a characteristic that's tricky to see clearly.

However, once you develop an eye for it, you need never be stymied by a colleague who fails to be responsible.

n Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of 'Perfect Time-Based Productivity'. To receive a summary of links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com.