A team of people who shift blame from one person to another, who do not embrace ultimate responsibility, will never accomplish anything great. And a team who collectively tolerates the shifting of responsibility will never fulfill its mission as fully as it could.
Of course, no one wants to admit that he/she is not taking responsibility, that he/she is an expert in shifting accountability to someone or something else. No team wants to admit they are experts in doing so. No one raises a hand and says, “I do that. I excel in developing excuses that excuse me. I am great at setting up the scenario where I am completely in the clear no matter what.” Instead, in our humanity, we are really good at finding ways to appear to be taking responsibility without really taking responsibility.
If you need help in this skill, here are six approaches to help you more keenly and effectively shift accountability:
1) The post-question approach
Ask questions that indicate you think the direction or mission was not clear. Don’t explicitly say that you think so. That would be too overt. Just ask some poignant questions. The key here is to wait until after the project is complete, until after the deadline has passed. If you ask clarifying questions beforehand, you would then be accountable. So wait till it is over, and then ask questions.
2) The “them” approach
Reference “leadership” or “management” in as many conversations as possible. Paint the picture that there is a nebulous and unapproachable force out there that is really pulling all the strings. By doing this, you will nullify your own responsibility. And the genius here is that if the plan is successful, you will have executed despite the infamous “them.” But if the plan doesn’t work, it’s on “them.” Either way, you can’t lose!
3) The broken structure approach
While the first two approaches subtly push blame upward, this approach absolves you by bemoaning the structure or the system you find yourself trapped in. This one is fairly easy to pull off. Just use big, educated-sounding phrases or draw some circles on a board about how things could be so much better if “we were set up this way.” Just remember: the more you demonize the structure, the less responsibility you have.
4) The lateral approach
This is a more risky approach because it can set you up in an adversarial relationship with colleagues, so use it sparingly and only in desperate situations. To absolve yourself, find ways to throw others under the proverbial bus by pointing out the interconnectedness of your area of responsibility to other areas in which “you have no oversight.” So you don’t come off too pompous, don’t directly question the leadership prowess of another area; rather, make it about “communication problems” or “hand-off issues.”
5) The weak team approach
The struggle with the first four approaches is that a wise leader will call you on them. After all, you likely took the assignment in the current structure and work regularly under the direction of “them.” So you may have to fall back on this approach if you have leaders who are attempting to create a culture of accountability. Blame your own team. Question their skill or commitment. Caution: Only do this if you inherited the team or if you don’t have the freedom to build your own team. If you built it, you will ultimately be accepting responsibility, and you want to avoid that at all costs.
6) The workload or capacity approach
Lastly, this is a trump card you can use. But you should be careful not to use it too much as you don’t want to hurt your credibility. The best use of “the workload has just been so overwhelming” is after a failed deadline or a big miss. Whatever you do, do NOT share workload concerns beforehand because you may end up receiving some additional support or have someone help you with priorities, and then you couldn’t have “workload issues” as an excuse.
Shifting responsibility is an art. It takes practice. You can become better at it over time.
Or you can set your heart and mind to something else. You can be a man or woman of integrity, own your mistakes, learn from them, and become a better leader.