Personal Accountability

Just after graduating from college, the first full-time job I got was as an administrative assistant for a higher education institution. Although I was not passionate about the work itself, I gave it my best effort. It paid the bills during our first four years of marriage while my husband was in medical school.

Several support staff in the organization perpetually played the victim role; they frequently held a “pity party” to air their grievances about work conditions and to pontificate about how unfair life was. A few co-workers invested a lot of their energy in trying to “look” busy so they could deflect as much work as possible. Because my desk was generally orderly and was not piled high with papers, the woman I shared an office used to advise me: “You should pull files from the drawers and stack them on your desk so you’ll look busy. Then they won’t keep giving you more work!” My reply to her: “But that’s why I am here, is to work! Why would I want to deflect work if I am all caught up?” She really thought I was an odd one! I think she also felt a little threatened by ability to be so productive…as if my productivity would make her look bad. I wasn’t there to compete with her. I was simply there to work.

Some of my co-workers carried a sense of entitlement, and they frequently asked really lousy “victim” questions like these: Why does this always happen to me? When is someone going to give me a break? When are they going to fix this problem? My co-workers never stopped to ask how they might be part of the problem…or part of the solution.

John Miller, author of The Question Behind the Question (QBQ), suggests that this victim mentality comes as a result of asking poor questions. If you have not read this short book, I highly recommend it. I’ll share a story to illustrate some of the powerful points the author makes about QBQ.

A few years ago I received a phone call from an administrative assistant (I’ll call her Carol) who had found my website while doing some online research about how to increase personal productivity. She was calling with questions about some productivity tools she had read about on my website. By the end of our conversation, she was very eager to get the Paper Tiger and a tickler file system – both were productivity tools I’d recommended. The next step was to get purchase approval from her employer, a non-profit organization.

A few days later I got an email from Carol, informing me that there was a budget freeze in her organization. Not only was she unable to make any purchases, but she was also told that she could not implement the Paper Tiger system during work hours. Her organization had been forced to lay off support staff during a recent budget crunch and Carol’s responsibilities had increased, so her boss did not want her taking time away from her “work” to learn and set up a new system.

To my surprise, Carol was determined to forge ahead, despite these challenges. I could tell that she was passionate about her organization’s mission. She knew how important it was to be more productive so she could handle the additional responsibilities she had recently inherited. I was amazed to learn that Carol had decided to spend her own money to purchase the necessary tools and to work after hours to get everything set up.

As I thought back to my years working as an administrative assistant, I couldn’t help thinking of the support staff I’d worked with 20+ years ago. Put in Carol’s circumstances, they would have asked questions like these: Why do I have to do everything? When are they going to provide me with more help? Why can’t they at least pay for products that would help make my work easier?

It’s understandable why someone would think this way, especially when feeling frustrated, unsupported and overwhelmed. Still, these are lousy questions to be asking. Our society is full of victim thinking. How can we possibly make progress when we’re so busy playing the victim? These negative questions don’t solve any problems! Nothing positive or productive comes from asking them. These questions also imply that someone else is responsible for the problems and the solutions. What ever happened to personal accountability?

Carol generated additional choices by asking better, more personally accountable “I” questions rather than victim-like “they” questions: What can I do to increase my personal productivity? What can I do to develop myself? What can I do to support our organization’s mission?

Curious about what happened with Carol? After she implemented the Paper Tiger software and the tickler file system with her own funds and on her own time, her productivity went way up. Her supervisor could not believe how quickly she could retrieve information and how consistently she was meeting deadlines, despite her additional responsibilities.

Three months after Carol’s initial purchase of these tools, I received a request for multiple network copies of the Paper Tiger software and several more tickler file systems, as well as a request for some of my time to help with implementation of these tools. This time it was paid for by her organization, despite the budget freeze.

About a year after Carol’s employer implemented the software and tickler files, I called to ask how things were going. Someone else answered Carol’s direct line, and I was told she no longer worked at that extension; Carol had been promoted to a management position! When we connected, Carol told me about some incredible transformations that had taken place in her organization since they had implemented the productivity tools that she had started out with on her own.

Instead of blaming, complaining and spending energy trying to deflect additional work, Carol had asked the QBQ: What can I do? Then she designed her own solutions and took action. She took personal accountability rather than becoming a victim. And Carol did what she did because she chose to, not because she had to. Remember to check your self-talk: I should…, I gotta…, and I have to… represent victim language; I choose to… is empowering and builds on personal accountability.

Copyright 2005 Kathy Paauw

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