“You Really Oughta Wanna” is the subtitle of a book written 35 years ago. The statement is as relevant today as it was then. We still don’t always wanna take responsibility for the things we should.
Take safety, for example. Years ago I worked in an organization that had tried and tried to get employees to work more safely. All of the traditional approaches were tried. Programs were implemented, threats were made, and people were held more accountable. Against the advice of consultants, safety was even made part of the incentive program. But each month accident rates killed the payouts, so to speak, and nothing changed.
The workers didn’t seem to care. If an employee was working on an elevated platform with no safety lanyard, people would say to the person next to them, “That’s really dumb,” but would think twice about saying something to the unsafe employee. The attitude was, “It’s none of my business.” I have to confess that, as a manager, there was a time or two that I was guilty of not speaking up when I had the chance.
One day something did change, however. It was something that might seem insignificant to some. But in our culture, it signaled a major shift. I was at the back of the room in a meeting, half sitting and half leaning on the edge of a table. When the group took a break, a union president came up to me, rambled on about how dangerous it was to lean on tables and asked me to find a chair. I chuckled a bit thinking he was joking and continued to park myself on the table.
But he didn’t let up.
He kind of reminded me of when Mom used to tell me not to shoot rubber bands. You know the words, “It’s always funny until someone loses an eye.” Of course, I’ve never known anyone who lost an eye from a rubber band fight. Nor have I ever known anyone who knew someone who lost an eye from a rubber band fight. I figured this was just another one of those “Mom” things people say when they want to feel important, so I continued my mental “yeah, yeah, yeah” response.
The union president went on about how the previous month his sister had been sitting on the table just like I was when the table legs gave way. She and the table crashed. She ended up at the urgent care center with a cast, a major back ache and a couple of weeks at home. He was concerned that I not end up in the same condition. Despite my obvious lack of interest, he smiled and said something about his having made a commitment that nobody get hurt at work.
Suddenly, two thoughts struck me. One was that this guy seemed genuinely concerned enough about me to step out of his comfort zone and say something about it. The other was that he was actually taking responsibility for something greater than just himself. He was accepting responsibility for a safe work environment for everyone!
Although the catalyst for change in the organization was a direct conversation with union leaders about what they were committed to, what ultimately made the difference was their willingness to choose. When confronted with a clear choice of status quo or personal accountability, they could easily have chosen status quo and had in the past.
It’s a choice for which we can all confront ourselves—deciding whether we wish to be accountable only for ourselves and tasks for which we are held accountable, or a higher level of commitment to each other and the whole organization, and by doing so, create something considerably more substantial and beneficial for all.
The choice to be safe didn’t happen because others demanded or encouraged it. It occurred because individuals confronted their own beliefs and practices that stood in the way of change and chose to be accountable for the results.
We all make choices, even when we decline to choose. As a friend of mine likes to say, “You cannot not choose because to not choose is to choose.” Only when we actively declare to ourselves that we will be a force for change and committed to the whole—regardless of the situation, despite disappointment, and in the face of opposition—can we break free of personal excuse, justification, resignation and cynicism, and reach higher levels of contribution.
And as for me? Yes, I decided I wanna and made a new choice, too.
Trying it on for fit: We all have the capability of choosing something other than living with the status quo regardless of what others choose. How can we take on a higher level of accountability for the greater goal or collective good and become a positive force for the business? Here are some things to consider:
- Don’t base your decisions to act on what others do. Instead, confront your own choices.
- Direct your conversations more toward creating a new and better future, and resist letting them drag you or others back into the past. Make decisions based on what is required for that future to be realized rather than on what has occurred in the past.
- Focus on what others need for the group to succeed as a whole instead of always on what you need or what you can accomplish. Check yourself so that you don’t figuratively throw problems over the wall for someone else to deal with. Accept responsibility for things you know about and for learning about those you don’t.
- Confront yourself on self-imposed limitations and justifications you use to keep yourself in your comfort zone. Consider that things only seem impossible because you haven’t figured out how they can change or you haven’t seen them happen before.
- Help others to clearly recognize the choices they have and help them consider choosing accountability for the success of the whole.
Send an e-mail and let me know what you learn from your experiences. I would love to hear from you!
Kevin Herring is co-author of Practical Guide for Internal Consultants, and President of Ascent Management Consulting. Ascent specializes in creating business solutions through effective management, workplace cultures and organization systems.
Kevin can be reached at 520-742-7300, firstname.lastname@example.org or www.ascentmgt.com.