Michael Timms Breaks the Blame Game for Better Result with Three Habits of Accountability

Jason McRobbie

If you think every problem is someone else’s fault, Michael Timms, principal of Avail Leadership, would be the last person to blame you—but he does have a few handy habits to pass on that might change your life, as well as those looking to you at work. Both on the page and from the stage, Michael has been helping evolve the leadership dialogue and business results alike with the wisdom within his latest book, How Leaders Can Inspire Accountability. We sit down with Michael to sort through why breaking up with blame is key to resolving daily dilemmas and bottom lines alike.

Key Takeaways:

  • Leaders need to foster a culture of accountability to create the environment for trust and innovation to thrive;
  • Leaders need to retrain their brains away from blame, look into the mirror and engineer solutions with systems thinking in mind; and
  •  Leaders need to remember that accountability is just as contagious as blame is toxic.

What if ‘80s songwriter Howard Jones was right when he wrote, No One Ever Is To Blame?

For Michael Timms, principal of Avail Leadership—and author of How Leaders Can Inspire Accountability: Three Habits That Make or Break Leaders and Elevate Organizational Performance—those words go the heart about what he has learned about blame and its impact across not only our organizational landscape, but in our personal lives as well.

What has taken Michael into the media, countless boardrooms and conference presentations alike are the insights he has accrued and the Three Habits of Accountability that he holds key to making or breaking leaders and organizational performance alike.

As Michael’s books and our conversation reveal, getting out of the blame game is where the shared wins begin.

“When you think about why people leave an organization, you hear about how people don’t leave a company, they leave a manager, but the most psychologically damaging thing that destroys relationships is blame. Blame is toxic,” said Michael. “No relationship can stand very long in the face of blame, especially if it involves a manager who is not owning up. So, if you are concerned about turnover, you really need the three habits of accountability for a number of reasons.”

Encapsulated succinctly in a recent white paper, we delved into Michael’s Three Habits of Accountability.

Habit 1: Don’t Blame. Blame Kills Accountability

“This is really where leaders need to start—with reducing the instinct to blame. A lot of people in leadership positions feel they aren’t blamers, so I have an exercise I pass along when working on development program around this. Their assignment is to monitor themselves for the next week to track how often they feel that instinct to blame someone else when there was a problem,” said Michael. “Then we track those results and ask, ‘Were you surprised at how often you felt the urge to blame when things went wrong?’ Well over 80% are either surprised at how often they felt that urge—or already knew they were blamers.”

While adding the caveat that there are those who blame themselves instead of others, Michael points out this is a small minority of leaders, and that self-shaming is no more effective at resolving problems than blaming.

“Most people don’t think they are blamers until they start to pay attention to it, so that is where to start,” said Michael. “Begin to track how often your brain goes to, “Who did this?’ when things go wrong and/or you come to an immediate conclusion about who did this and why it happened.”

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Habit Two: Look in the Mirror. Acknowledge Your Part in Problems.

“This one of the toughest things to do, but we can retrain our brains away from blame and look into the mirror and ask what role we might have played. Instead of asking, ‘Who did this?’ we need to ask, “How might I have contributed to the problem? said Michael, noting that while most of us are good at noticing the mistakes of other people, our biases conspire to blind us to how we contribute to problems.

This is why, Michael points out, we tend to believe that most of our problems are caused entirely by other people or circumstances.

“This is rarely the case. Since you are one of the few constant variables in your own life, your behaviour is one of the most likely contributors to your problems,” said Michael. “This is why requesting feedback and accepting it with gratitude is so important. We all have a psychological disadvantage when it comes to diagnosing our own problems.”

Habit Three: Engineer the Solution. Fix Processes, Not People.

“While our brains are hardwired to blame the person closest to the mess and ignore other causes, there’s a fix for this,” said Michael. “It’s called systems thinking—noticing how environments and processes influence behaviour—and it emerged toward the end of WWII when the US Air Force had a lot of planes crashing without obvious mechanical issues. They originally blamed the pilot for being error-prone, but the culprit and cause was confusion caused by cockpit design.”

This change of thinking can change results in short order, said Michael. “The way to adopt a systems mindset is to get in the habit of asking, ‘Where did the process break down?’ anytime you encounter a problem.”

A Case Study in Cascading Accountability

Time and again, Michael has witnessed the impact of these three habits, not just on individual leaders, but throughout organizations.

“Accountability has this sort of magical effect on other people’s behaviour. When you as a leader follow these habits, other people do the same thing,” said Michael.

He shares a story of a senior manager within a company he had recently visited with his accountability workshop. After learning about a costly mistake an employee made, the senior manager told the employee’s supervisor he wanted to address it with the employed directly. The supervisor didn’t object.

The senior manager then met with the remorseful employee to clearly explain what he did wrong and why it can’t happen again. He said, “Next time, call your supervisor for advice if you encounter this issue again.” Slightly bewildered, the employee replied, “But my supervisor was right there with me when it happened.”

Livid that his best supervisor let him reprimand an employee for the supervisor’s mistake, the senior manager called a colleague who had also attended the workshop for advice. His colleague simply asked him, “What’s your part in the problem?”

What followed was a crash course in cascading accountability.

"He walked into the room with the supervisor and said, ‘I just spoke with your employee and learned what really happened.” Pausing just enough to let that sink in, he continued, ‘But you know what? I think I’ve let you down. I haven’t spent enough time with you to teach you what it takes to be a leader here,’” shared Michael. “The manager was devastated and said, ‘No, no, no. You’ve taught me what it takes. I’ve let you down. I know what I should have done and didn’t do it. Not only did I not do it, but I let one of my employees take the blame for it. This is totally on me.’

Then they called the employee in and before the employee could say anything, the supervisor said, ‘I let you down. I’m sorry I did this. This mistake was not yours, but totally on me.’ Then the employee said, ‘Well, I appreciate you saying this, but part of this is on me too because there were aspects of this that you didn’t know about that I didn’t let you know about soon enough and next time I will do better.”

“All the while, the senior manager is just watching this accountability cascade and could not believe how contagious it was,” said Michael, driving home a key point. “Accountability IS contagious. When you make it safe for people to own their mistakes, it just cascades.”

Leaders Go First: Accountability is Key to Safety, Succession, Results

Alternatively, in the absence of accountable leadership, so too does psychological safety vanish, Michael notes.  The impact of that can be catastrophic for corporate culture, succession planning and quarterly results alike.

“Let’s drill down a bit further about why accountability is so incredibly important for the tech industry. It’s because the degree of psychological safety required for people to say, ‘This is what went wrong and this is what I am going to do to fix it,’ is the same degree of psychological safety required for people to innovate. Nobody is going to go out on a limb and take risks if they don’t feel they are in a safe place to do so,” said Michael.

In fact, no one will do that unless their leader goes first.

“That’s why I think it’s critically important for everybody to demonstrate accountability, but even more so for leaders because very few people are willing to step up and say, ‘You know what? That was my bad,’ if they don’t have a leader who has already demonstrated that it’s safe to do so,” said Michael. “As leaders, we need to say and demonstrate that, ’We all make mistakes and maybe me more than most of you, but they key thing is that we are learning and putting in place sustainable solutions.’”

Key Ties to Talent Pipeline

Moreover, without accountable leadership, the talent pipeline is only likely to tighten, Michael notes, as there are only really two ways to get talent into any organization.

“You can develop talent within or you can try to steal better from your competitors than they steal from you. The reality is that developing your people is far more reliable, ” said Michael. “That holds true for talent in general, but I think it’s even more important with leadership because the research will show you that—unless your company is broken—internal hires will produce better results than external hires. They simply understand your company better—your culture, the technical aspects of your product or service, that institutional knowledge—so there is a lower failure rate. They know what they are getting into and so do the people when they promote from within. “

That said, in order to grow those leaders, you need to retain, engage and develop them in their careers, or risk sending a message that sends key talent elsewhere.

“I have seen the opposite happen in tech companies. If you are not promoting people from within then you are actually sending a clear message that ‘If you want to advance your career, then you have to go elsewhere. That’s not a message you want to be sending,” said Michael, again drawing that critical tie between the three habits of accountability, psychological safety and the true bottom line.

A Higher Moral Standard in the Making

“Yes, people are going to be far more engaged, but just as important is that they will be less disengaged. At the end of the day, the whole purpose of the Three Habits of Accountability is to create the environment where better results and continuous improvement can happen,” said Michael. “So it really is a win-win for your culture and your organization. Everybody loves working in a blame-free environment, but the reality is that it does translate into real results—better execution, better solutions and better results down the road.”

With his latest book and recent white paper delving even deeper into some great case studies, Michael has not only started a conversation around accountability for innumerable leaders, but evolved the conversation of what it means to be a leader.

“My point is this. There are pretty simple leadership practices that anyone can implement to help ‘make’ you a better leader—practices to inspire people to follow you, practices to help you get results with those people,” said Michael. “But a big part of what I teach with the Three Habits of Personal Accountability—those really are higher moral standards that we are asking leaders to live by. It requires incredible self-discipline to do that on a consistent base, but it’s a game changer that unlocks the good in those around you.”

If that sounds like a peak beyond reach, rest assured, Michael knows it’s always a work in progress.

“I’ve been teaching these principles for over five years and I’m still working on myself,” said Michael. “Am I blaming? Am I looking in the mirror sufficiently? Am I coming up with engineered solutions?”

With a wealth of stories to share, Michael Timms takes the stage at the upcoming Tech Talent North West Conference in Vancouver on June 6, 2024.