Building Teamwork: Helping Your Team Take Responsibility for Their Results

The end of the year in an organization is often a time of reflection and evaluation. As I look back over the decisions I have made over the past 12 months, I evaluate them to see how they have affected our company and what I might do differently. As I reflect, I am paying attention to that voice in my head that is tempted to blame our failures on other people (or organizations) while taking complete credit for our successes. If I want my team to work together effectively, I have to resist this impulse to assign blame or credit.

I recall an incident that occurred in my life several years ago that is emblematic of this tendency to blame other people for the unfortunate events that happen in our lives. I was in my car at a green light waiting for a pedestrian to pass so that I could turn right at a street corner. Suddenly a truck hit the back of my car. It was a US Post Office truck driven by an employee who proceeded to back up and drive away from the scene of the accident. Given that those trucks have a large identifying number on the back, this was not such a great idea. I wrote that number down and followed him straight to the post office where I told a supervisor what happened. The supervisor left to get the official paperwork. As the two of us stood looking at the back end of my car, he actually said to me in a accusing tone of voice: “Well, I hope you’re happy. You just made me lose my job.”

I remember that situation and his comment whenever I am tempted to blame someone else for the consequences of my own actions. To avoid that, I find it useful to ask myself: How have I contributed to this outcome? What would I do differently if I could do this over? The next time I face this problem what will I do?

When we lead teams, we can help them develop this habit of taking personal responsibility for their part in a difficult outcome. The trick is to do it without blaming them or ourselves. We can lay the foundation by talking through the issue or challenge with phrases such as:

  • As I think about what happened, I can see that I contributed by….
  • We all share responsibility for this outcome. For instance, I wish that I had….
  • The next time we handle this challenge, I plan to….

And we can also help our employees and co-workers take ownership of their part by asking questions such as:

  • Looking back, how do you think you played a part in this?
  • If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?
  • What steps do you plan to take the next time you face this situation?

When people make clear statements that demonstrate that they are taking at least partial ownership of a challenging situation, we can reinforce their positive behavior by making statements such as:

  • I really appreciate your ability to look at this challenge objectively.
  • I think your assessment of this situation is right on target.
  • I trust that you will succeed next time. These are great ideas.
  • Thank you for talking this problem through so that we can work together to get better results.

As we model taking ownership and responsibility and as we recognize this same level of personal responsibility demonstrated by others, we reinforce a positive cycle that paves the way to healthy, collaborative teamwork.

So what will it be? A team that is at the mercy of lunkheads in other departments? Or a team that is confident in its ability to meet any challenge? It’s your choice.

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