Business Growth & Strategy

What Makes a Person Accountable, Part 2

whatmakesapersonaccountableIn my previous blog, I stated that if you want accountable employees, you must teach them the basic knowledge and follow up with continuous coaching.  Here are two Accountability models that you can use for that purpose:

Accountability Models

Arbinger Institute Model

The Arbinger model is based upon a simple concept; identifying and acting on the right thing to do for another. Here is an example, paraphrased from their book “Leadership and Self-Deception”:

Imagine an early morning in the lives of new parents.  Nancy does not work outside of the home.  Bud is at a crucial point in his career and it is important to work long hours to advance his career. This story is told by Bud.

One night a number of years ago, when David was just an infant, I was awakened by his wailing cries. He was probably four months old or so at the time. I remember glancing at the clock. It was around one in the morning.

In the flash of that moment, I had a feeling a thought of something I should do. It was: Get up and tend to David so that Nancy can sleep. I felt a desire to do something for her.

However, I didn’t act on it.  I just stayed in bed, listening to David wail. I started to rationalize why I should stay in bed.  Suddenly, I saw Nancy differently. I am the one who is working and she does not have to get up early.  She may even be faking!  Wow, she IS lazy! Doesn’t she understand how important my career advancement is for the family?  Look at all the sacrifices that I make and she can’t even get up with the baby tonight! I am going to be tired in the morning and it is all her fault!

Bud has two choices when he hears the baby cry: 1). To honor the thought and take care of his baby, or 2). to ignore the thought and stay in bed.

Arbinger defines an act of self betrayal as when we choose the second option. Because Bud ignored the right action to take for Nancy and his baby, Bud’s view of himself and wife became distorted and he began to rationalize:

How Bud Saw Himself How Bud Saw Nancy
        Victim         Lazy
        Hardworking         Inconsiderate
        Important         Unappreciative
        Fair         Insensitive
        Sensitive         Faker
        Good dad         Bad mom
        Good husband         Lousy wife

Do any of these rationalizations sound familiar? Have you used them yourself? How many times do your employees use them?

Imagine teaching with this simple story (or showing Arbinger’s video referenced at the end of this article).  When you hear non-accountable behavior such as blame or rationalization, ask “What is the right action to take for _______?

An accountable person honors the original thought to help another and sees reality clearly. Blame and rationalization serve no purpose.

The Oz Principle:

The Oz Principle defines accountability as “a personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results: to see it, own it, solve it, and do it.”

Conners, Smith and Hickman in their book, The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability, developed a vertical diagram with a “line” representing the point of differentiation between victim thinking (Below the Line or external locus of control) and accountability (Above the Line or internal locus of control).

Steps to Accountability or Above the Line Behavior.By following these four steps, you can avoid victimhood.
  1. “See It”: Recognize and acknowledge the full reality of a situation.
  2. “Own It”: Accept full responsibility for your contribution to the your current experience.
  3. “Solve It”: Change the current reality by identifying and implementing solutions to your problem while being conscious of Below the Line if challenges present themselves.
  4. “Do It”:  Fully commit to follow through with the solutions identified, especially when there is great risk in doing so.

The Victim Cycle or Below the Line Behaviors
  1. The Ignore and Deny Stage is where you pretend there is not a problem.
  2. The It’s Not My Job Stage is when you are aware there is a problem and that action is needed. However, you avoid involvement.
  3. The Finger pointing Stage is when you deny responsibility for bad results and shift blame.
  4. The Confusion/Tell Me What To Do Stage is when you avoid responsibility by claiming confusion.
  5. The Cover Your Tail Stage is when you create stories as to why you are not responsible and should not be blamed.
  6. The Wait and See Stage is when you know there is a problem that requires action and you choose to not act in the hope that things will magically improve.

Accountability in Organizations

The Arbinger Institute describes the impact of self-betrayal (or lack of accountability) on organizations:

This denial keeps individuals, teams, and organizations blind to the reality of what is occurring and explains why enormous resources and efforts allocated towards symptoms are misdirected and contribute to further organizational hampering or implosion. Until cause is linked to effect there can be no true change and only further carnage.

Conflicts that look “political” are really personal and they keep individuals looking out for themselves rather than focusing on accountability and results. As long as employees are not focused on results for the organization, they are working for their own interests and therefore against the company mission. The costs are enormous on many levels. If left uncorrected, victim attitudes erode productivity, competitiveness, morale and trust to the point that the organization can never fully heal itself or its people.

Accountability in organizations ONLY happens when its employees are personally accountable.

Transforming from Victim to Accountable

Here is the good news. People can learn and choose to be accountable!

The first step is to acquire the necessary knowledge.  Spend some time reading and understanding one of the preceding accountability models.

Next, assess your accountability with an exercise. Think of a current, challenging situation that involves another person.

  1. On a blank piece of paper, describe a current situation that has you upset or angry. Write down the name of the primary person involved.
  2. List all the reasons that this situation and the individual you named caused you aggravation.
  3. Refer to the story about Bud and Nancy and answer this question: What is the right action to take for the person you identified in #1? Did you act on that thought? If no, how are you rationalizing your behavior?
  4. Using the Oz Principle Model, identify where your thinking falls. How are you describing the other people involved? Are they at fault and you are right?

The following statements indicate that you are caught in the victim cycle (“Below the Line”) or are “in the box.”

  • I tell stories of how people, situations or organizations take advantage of me.
  • I feel like I am not in control.
  • I like to blame others.
  • I don’t like negative feedback from others and don’t listen to it.
  • I avoid tough issues.
  • I avoid situations where I have to report my results.
  • I craft stories about why things are not my fault.
  • I say things like: “It is not my fault.” “There’s nothing that I can do.” “Just tell me what you want me to do.”

The following statements indicate that you are Above the Line or have not betrayed yourself:

  • I actively seek feedback from other’s about my performance.
  • I never want anyone to hide the truth from me.
  • I see reality, including all of its problems and obstacles.
  • I spend my time and energy on those things that I can control or influence.
  • I commit myself 100% to the results that I want to achieve.
  • I recognize when I drop into the victim cycle and can bring myself out of it.
  • I routinely ask myself, “What else can I do get the results to which I have committed myself?”

 5. What do you now see or own about this situation.

 6. What is the most effective step that you will take to resolve your problem?

 Arbinger recommends this process to become more accountable and compassionate:

To end self-deception, learn the patterns of your own mind[1] through self-observation and mindfulness.

Be emotionally honest about ongoing self-betrayal and collusions.  See people as hurting themselves- there is nothing to be upset with.  Recognize when others are self-betraying. When compassion enters, fear departs. This requires time, self-reflection and a willingness to experience current and past painful emotions. Recognize dissonance and resolve it by doing the fair, or right, thing.


You have the opportunity to provide a unique opportunity for you and your employees to grow in an atmosphere mostly free from victim thinking. Start with yourself. Use an accountability model to expose and eliminate your negative attitudes first. Then teach and coach your employees to do the same.

When employees assume personal ownership of their company’s results and accept responsibility for their own performance, they become more engaged and work at a higher level.

Imagine the impact on your company and employees if you can improve accountability a little every day. Everyone wins!

Further Reading

  1. Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box by the Arbinger Institute
  2. The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability, By Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman
  3. QBQ! The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life by John Miller
  4. Wikipedia-Locus of Control
  5. Arbinger Institute You Tube VIdeo

[1] The Enneagram is a great tool for uncovering your unconscious thinking patterns.

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Category: Business Growth & Strategy


About the Author: Cheryl McMillan

Cheryl is a Vistage Master Chair and Executive Coach. She has a passion for raising awareness in leaders about how their choices and unconscious actions impact their results. She leads two C-Suite peer advisory boards, comprised of CEO's or …

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  1. MIke

    January 10, 2012 at 9:26 pm

     I know of Arbingers work
    and read their book back in 2003. The notion of self-deception is at the root
    of true leadership (and the cause of most of our problems). If I can’t see the
    real problem, then there are no “real” solutions available to me. Everything I throw
    at them to solve them will only be making matters worse and I will become even
    more frustrated, angry, resentful or depressed. In doing so, I am now blaming
    the others with the very emotions I experience.  

    It makes sense how the OZ Principle relates in taking on a
    victim mentality when I don’t take responsibility. I claim I am the victim of
    mistreatment from another and therefore free myself of being responsible for my
    blaming emotions (frustration, anger, resentment, depression…)

    Thanks for the post – much to ponder in our roles at work.

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