Responsibility and Results

“When everyone is responsible, then no one is responsible.”

The interesting thing about old sayings is they almost always have a grain of truth in them.  I’ve found this bit of wisdom to be particularly true when it comes to managers.

Managers have a habit of dodging accountability when anything goes bad.  They blame externalities, point the finger at colleagues, and even offer up their subordinates as scapegoats.

What’s a boss to do?

Making results count.

This problem has its roots in the way we view ourselves (compared to the way we see other people.)  With others, it is easy to brush aside technicalities, excuses, and red herrings, and pin responsibility for bad results wherever they belong.  In fact, some managers are obsessed with doing so – I like to call that finding out “who shot John.”

With ourselves, it’s different.  We see the world from a unique perspective – from the inside of our lives.  We intimately exactly the challenges, difficulties, and barriers we’ve been faced with in trying to accomplish a goal – things we tend to brush aside as tertiary when we examine the struggles of others.  Those things loom large when our own failure is eminent.  Combined this with an ego that tends to excuse bad (lazy, stupid, etc) behaviors and emphasizes our positives, and you have a well-oiled machine uniquely capable of dodging responsibility and making excuses.

The marketing manager blames the engineering manager, who blames the sales manager, who blames the operations department.  The ridiculous carousel of blame-gaming plays out every day.

Who’s right?  It does really matter.  When this kind of situation emerges, it’s a clear signal that there is something wrong with staff, structure, or both.

A bad structure

Traditional organization design, one with departmental silos, tends to exacerbate the problem of dodging responsibility for bad results.  The theory behind silo designs is that by specializing people into particular areas within an organization, the depth of their knowledge allows them to have a better command of the subject and thus produce better results.

Our entire business educational system is arranged around this idea.  People major in “marketing” or “accounting.”  We tend to train specialists, rather than generalists.

The problem comes in the many hand-offs and interactions with other so-called experts.  This interplay between silos can become so inefficient that the friction caused there more than overcomes the advantages of specialization.

A more effective design is to push end-to-end responsibility down to the lowest possible level.  To do this, the individual must become solely responsible (or at least as close as possible) for the results of a small piece of the business – perhaps a specific product, a service, or a particular capability that the company brings to the market.  The key to making this work is to have a separable revenue stream for the item, and the ability to put together some kind of “profit and loss” statement to track it.

At one of my employers, we had an aging product line that still had potential but was largely ignored by the silo-based organization.  The product line’s decline was “nobody’s” fault, at least according to those touching it in the functional organization.  To fix the problem, I appointed a heavy-weight product manager to “own” the product line.  I then carved resources out of the existing organization and assigned them to the manager.  From that point forward, he lived and died by the product line.  Needless to say, the line turned around rapidly.

While this might solve some responsibility-dodging problems, it isn’t a panacea.  You’ll likely still have to deal with the phenomena of blaming those that came before (known at one of my employers as “blaming the dead guy”)

Bad habits

Changing the structure won’t work if you appoint the wrong people to the key roles.  If your silo-type organization is completely rife with blame-gaming, you probably don’t have the right people.

People tend to pick up habits and behaviors they see working successfully, and discard them on the same basis.  You can change many of the bad habits you find in your organization by delivering a consistent message that it is undesirable, and then following up with consequences.

Sometimes even this isn’t enough.

When you have a group of employees that seem to be locked in a constant finger-pointing battle, sometimes the only solution is to replace a few of them.  Pick the biggest offender (regardless of expertise, experience, or political connection) and get rid of them.  Make it clear why you’ve taken the action, and you’ll likely see a major change in the survivors.

Or you might not.  If necessary, repeat the above procedure until things change.

I once had an extremely divisive manager on my staff, one who seemed to specialize in pushing blame for all failing onto his peers.  The behavior was so ingrained that even working with a coach couldn’t resolve it.  In the wake of this manager’s bad habits, other departmental managers started to engage in the same thing.

Eventually, I decided I needed to fire the divisive manager.

Unfortunately, my boss wouldn’t allow it.  It seemed that the manager had somehow convinced the CEO that our success hinged on his capabilities.  While that was far from the truth, there was no talking the CEO out of this opinion.

I ended up living with the situation for several years, finding it increasingly difficult to reign in a staff that seemed to hate each other.

When I eventually left the job, the divisive manager actually increased his power for a time, taking over some of the responsibilities he used to complain about.  Eventually, it all became too much for him and he retired early after only a few years of being held responsible for the business’s results.


It takes the right people and the right structure to develop a culture of accountability.  As a manager, the structural problem is often easier to correct, while the people side can be a lingering enigma.  Drive responsibility for results as far down in the organization as possible, into the hands of those that demonstrate the willingness to accept them.  And finally, eliminate the “blaming disease,” either by demanding it stop, or getting rid of those that can’t seem to comply.  32.2

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