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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Power of Personal Accountability

Book Review  “The Question Behind the Question – practicing personal accountability at work and in life”, 2001, John G Miller

What to really ask yourself to eliminate blame, complaining, and procrastination. 

Miller vibrantly and succinctly discusses a crucial leadership topic and a skill needed at any level, in any position, as much in business as in private life. The topic at hand is the much debated personal accountability.

What makes this book worth recommending and reading?
-       It’s many ideas to move from blaming, complaining, and procrastinating to taking personal action. Ideas that can easily be implemented since they are focused on the kind of questions we ask ourselves and others and therefore the choices we make.  
-       The book is brief and written in a style that reads easily and quickly. If you are anywhere near as busy as many people, you will like this quick read.
-       The examples provided are clear and diverse, easily applicable to many types of situations.
-       It’s an upbeat book that at the same time makes you seriously think and rethink your beliefs, your questions, your choices, your actions, and your results.
-       The book is about questions and their power, which is one of my favorite topics, but apart from that, it’s one of the most powerful as well as one of the most misused communication tools.

My conclusion: this book is worth your attention. Following the line of thinking and the suggestions in this book we will make this a more constructive world, one person at a time and one step at a time.

Miller asserts that the lack of personal accountability is a problem that has resulted in an epidemic of blame, complaining, and procrastination. The trouble that plagues organizations cannot be solved by pointing fingers and blaming others. Negative, inappropriate questions like “Why are they doing this to us?” or “Why do we have to go through all this change?” and “Who dropped the ball?” represent a lack of personal accountability according to Miller. The better questions are: “How can I help solve the problem?”

It’s not my fault, it’s not my problem, it’s not my job, that’s her department, when are they finally going to train us, why don’t they communicate better … are questions, or rather, complaints that fill the air time too often. When most of us are faced with a frustration or challenge of some kind, our first reaction tends to be negative and defensive, and the first questions that occur to us are what Miller calls “incorrect questions”. He continues with the belief that you can choose to ask more accountable questions. Rather than “When are we going to get more help around here?” you can ask “What can I do to make a difference and contribute to the solution?” This is making better choices in the moment by asking better questions.

Sometimes people think they have no choice. They will say things like “I have to” or “I Can’t”. But we always have a choice. Always. Even deciding not to choose is making a choice.

Miller states that the answers are in the questions: if we ask a better question we get a better answer. Three simple guidelines for asking better questions (called QBQ – the Question Behind the Questions):
1.    Begin with ‘what’ or ‘how’ (not why, when, or who).
2.    Contain an “I” (not they, them, we, or you).
3.    Focus on action.

The Why question is victim thinking: Why can’t I find good people, why won’t they promote me etc. A better question would be: What can I do to get better people? What can I do to increases my chances for promotion? Another debilitating question that Miller discusses: “Why is this happening to me”? Miller beliefs, and so do I, that in many ways stress is a choice. Yes, bad things happen: bosses, stock markets, wars, illness. But whatever the trigger response, we always choose our own response. We choose to act angrily or stuff up our emotions or to worry. Different people have different reactions to the same situation because they make different choices based on different beliefs.

If you choose the question: “Why is this happening to me?” you feel as if you have no control which leads to a victim mindset with victim behavior. This can be very stressful. Turn from “Why do I have to go through all this change?” to “How can I adapt to the changing world?”

Miller continues with questions that start with ‘when’. These questions lead to procrastination - we’re really saying we have no choice but to wait and put off action until another time. Most people don’t intend to procrastinate, but they do. Better questions are: “What solution can I provide?”, “How can I more creatively reach the customer?” The answer is in the question just like procrastination is the friend of failure. A good piece of advice by Miller, even though nothing shockingly new: Take care of the little things while they are still little.

Creativity, says Miller, is not so much thinking outside the box, but succeeding within the box – reaching goals, making a difference, and doing the job well with what you already have. Focusing on what you don’t have is a waste of time and energy.

Asking the ‘who’ question is looking for scapegoats. Blame may be the most pervasive and counterproductive of all ‘mistakes’. Instead, ask yourself: “What can I do to move the project forward. What action can I take to ‘own’ the situation?”
An example from the world of sports: If you want to win you have to be good enough to beat the referee, so that you still win despite possible questionable calls during the sports match. You also have to beat yourself –overcoming the fears of any athlete, business man etc.

Miller states “Personal accountability changes the world, one choice at a time”, and I couldn’t agree more with him. It’s based partly on the notion that I can only change me. So basic a concept, so fundamental, so misunderstood, and so denied. It’s easier said than done: “Stop fixing others, turn to yourself” but how well do we act upon this?
Miller defines integrity as being what I say I am by acting in accordance with my words.
QBQ thinking leads to integrity because integrity begins with me, not others, asking the question: How can I practice the principles I espouse? Instead of asking when others will walk their talk, I’ll focus on walking my talk. Busy enough it seems.

There are four risks of doing nothing according to Miller:

1.    Action, even when it leads to mistakes, brings learning and growth. Inaction brings stagnation and atrophy.
2.    Action leads us toward solutions. Inaction at best does nothing and holds us in the past.
3.    Action requires courage. Inaction often indicates fear.
4.    Action builds confidence, inaction builds doubt and insecurity.
It’s better to be told to wait than to wait to be told.

Miller finishes with the notion that leadership, more than anything else, is about the way you think. It’s a moment-to-moment disciplining of your thoughts. It’s about practicing personal accountability and choosing to make a positive contribution, whether in a leadership position or not. Next to personal accountability Miller nominates humility as the cornerstone of leadership.

Miller stresses one more point: Learning is not the same as reading books, attending classes, listening to great speakers nor is it gaining knowledge. Learning is about translating knowing what to do into doing what we know. It’s about changing.  If you have not changed today, you have not learned today. Wisdom is what we learn after we know it all. No one is ever a finished product.

Be inspired by your journey into your line of thinking and questioning – your journey into learning and changing.

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