Reprinted by permission from the publisher, John Wiley & Sons Inc., from The Reality-Based Rules of the Workplace by Cy Wakeman. Copyright © 2013 by Cy Wakeman.
Phil, a salesperson and one of my clients, was on the brink of losing his job. His sales were down because, he said, his customers' budgets had been slashed, and product development refused to develop cheaper products. Adding to his problems, his company was setting outrageous goals despite the poor economy, and not informing him until half the sales period had passed. He'd spent a great deal of time trying to get his boss to understand that his low figures weren't his fault. After all, hadn't he been a top salesperson for years?
This scenario has become all too common. Many of you feel that you are working hard, but being undermined by others, or factors outside of your control. If you are a typical employee, you tend to handle it in a few predictable ways. First, you commiserate … with your colleagues, which can feel really good in the moment, like a team bonding exercise, only voluntary. You get your frustrations out and end up with a list of reasons why, you all agree, you can't succeed and you aren't happy:
"Sales are down because of the economy."
"Our bosses don't listen to us."
"Our jobs are too big and too demanding."
"There's not enough time."
"There's too much bureaucracy."
"We're being micromanaged."
"We don't get the support/resources/information we need."
The next thing that tends to follow – once you've made a list of issues – is you take your list to your leaders, those you think can change your circumstances, or get you what you need: more staff, better technology, more time, clearer priorities, more understanding, more mentoring, more predictability.
Those of you who are less brave don't approach your leaders directly, but instead wait for your company's yearly engagement or satisfaction survey and let them have it, listing what parts of your reality they need to change in order for you to do better work. This is to little avail. Even your best, most understanding leaders can't always come through with everything you need and want – and those are the ones who are trying. You end up feeling discouraged, like you're being set up to fail. You do what you can, knowing that it may not have the impact you hoped for. Your happiness wanes and you try to care a little less and accept what you can't change.
When you feel powerless, complaining or blaming your circumstances, leaders, or coworkers brings temporary relief, and it's a natural response to the frustration so many employees feel. You keep hoping for things to get better, and for your luck to change. Instead, your jobs are growing and your impact is shrinking and your leaders don't have all the answers. When you can't change other people or your reality, sometimes it may seem like your only option is to step down and make up excuses for why you had to. Right now, you are very likely blaming your leaders and your circumstances for your misery. They are similarly blaming you for your poor results. But it isn't your circumstances that are to blame. The root cause of everyone's dissatisfaction is lack of personal accountability and lack of understanding of accountability's true connection to both results and happiness.
Personal accountability is the belief that you are fully responsible for your own actions and their consequences. It is a choice, a mindset, an expression of integrity. While some individuals possess a higher natural inclination towards personal accountability, it can most definitely be learned, and it is not only the foundation for all success in work and in life, but also a prerequisite for happiness.
Your challenges are real – you're not imagining them – but they don't need to become your excuses. We all want to see our efforts produce great results. You will get results when you stop complaining and blaming and focusing on what is happening "to" you, and focus instead on what you can do within your current reality, and with your current challenges to compete, to deliver, and to succeed.
People who are accountable have an internal motivation to succeed, no matter what their obstacles. It starts with a commitment to do whatever it takes to get the job done. People with this quality are naturally the happiest and most engaged. Companies with the most engaged employees tend to be the most successful, but your engagement has to come from within you. It's a byproduct of accountability, not a condition your leaders can create for you. Without a foundation of accountability, engagement fluctuates like the tides, rising and falling with the fortunes of the organization and the moods of its employees. Many companies have gotten off-track by focusing on trying to raise your engagement, when they should have been working with you on your accountability. As a result, many of you have come to believe that it is your leaders' job to perfect your circumstances in exchange for the gift of your work. You've learned to ask for more resources and make lists of what you lack instead of taking responsibility for your own results. Many of you are trapped in the mindset that your success and happiness is dependent on others, and finding both elusive. …
Personal accountability will deliver the happiness and engagement you want and the success your organization needs. Today's accountability is the best predictor of tomorrow's results. Recruiters and HR types have learned the valuable lesson that they can train accountable people to do almost any job. Hire the right people and they will bring their own motivation and engagement to everything they do. Be one of those people, and you will ensure your job security – or that your resume goes to the top of the stack. If you work in a highly skilled profession, my message to you is that your skills alone are not enough to get you ahead any more.