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Steps to Improvement: Responsibility

The inspector plonked his report down on the desk in front of Tina. “It doesn’t make pretty reading,” he said as he took his seat. She reached forward and turned to the summary findings at the front. He was right – it wasn’t pretty reading. But, as she scanned through the key areas for improvement, she recognised them all. It wasn’t new news, but it was a hard and cold message when in print. A million things flashed through her mind about what this would mean for the team and for her. Reputations were on the line, jobs and livelihoods maybe. But despite all the white noise of cortisol-fuelled concern, one word rose in her mind…

This scene is reflected across the land. Across the realms of business, education and politics, there are moments when the stark reality of a situation comes to the forefront. In our own lives we can also be faced with the reality that things need to improve.

2 simple questions for improvement

Howard Gardner explains that ‘Leadership is the ability to create a story that affects the thoughts, feelings and actions of others. Leadership is about taking people on a journey of improvement. We saw last month that our identity is past, present and future, and when we lead ourselves, it is about asking ‘who am I?’ and ‘who do I want to become?’. When we lead an organisation or a team, it is about asking those same questions.

But what is the first step to improvement? What is the word that rose to the forefront of Tina’s mind? What do good leaders need to do first?

4 Steps to improvement

When you are faced with the need to improve, it is about addressing those two simple questions with four simple steps:

1. Responsibility

2. Review

3. Evaluate

4. Plan

Taking responsibility

‘Responsibility’ was the word that rose to the forefront of Tina’s mind. But is this the same word that arises for other people? In many cases, we instead see weak replacements. In my experience as a headteacher, working with children, I more commonly heard, “It’s not my fault.” Whether it was over a fight in the playground or something that had been damaged, this was all too often the immediate response. One would like to think that we grow up and grow out of this habit of shirking responsibility. However, from the political news to the workplaces we operate within, we don’t have to look far to see adults still not taking responsibility for themselves or a situation. Yet, if any progress, any improvement is to be made, it must start with taking responsibility. So, how do you go about that, and how do you avoid the trap of replacing responsibility with blame?

Consider the impact

If no one takes responsibility, then nothing will improve. It is a simple fact. Recently, one of my daughters came to visit and, as she parked outside, my son brought her attention to a flat tyre she had yet to notice. At this point, she is faced with a choice. It has been seen, now what does she do about it? It is her car and her safety at risk so, ultimately, it is her decision to make…

· She could choose to ignore it – there will be an impact.

· She could choose to just pump it up – there will be an impact.

· She could choose to arrange for it to be fixed – there will be an impact.

To quote the gameshow, “the choice, is yours”. With each choice, there is an impact or a consequence. If she ignores it, it could damage the tyre further and cause an accident. If she pumps it up, it will go down again and she will be faced with this decision again – regularly. It’s a short-term fix that will take more time in the long run. If she gets it repaired, it will cost but there will be safe and effective motoring. She did, of course, choose to take responsibility and get the tyre fixed!

So, if something is highlighted in our life that needs improving, we need to consider the impact of addressing it or not addressing it. For example, if your behaviour is coming across as impatient or grumpy with others, you have a choice to address it, and make a change in your behaviour, or carry on as you have been. This choice will lead you to one of two outcomes: improved or damaged relationships. These same choices exist within work, where perhaps the culture in your organisation comes into question. Failure to take responsibility for this could mean long-term damage to the organisation. But what could the impact be on the wellbeing of your staff, your reputation, your customer engagement and even your profit if you do address it?

Purpose driven

Leaders that are clear on their purpose will use this to drive responsibility. If your purpose is ‘excellence’, you will want to improve the situation to achieve excellence. If it is ‘empowerment’, you will want to empower people to achieve better. Leaders ask themselves, ‘what does my purpose look like in this moment?’. Having a purpose drives you to take responsibility for what you lead.

Balance and avoiding the blame game

It is all too easy as leaders to take all the responsibility, but this is not healthy nor helpful. You need to clearly identify what your responsibility is and own it. When you start by creating that climate, it makes it ok for others to take responsibility too. It is about creating a ‘no-blame’ culture, where it is encouraged to own errors and work together on a journey of improvement. Excuses are not accepted, just ownership and responsibility.

I’ve personally experienced the ‘blame game’ and seen the devastating impact it has on organisations. In fear, people choose to find someone to blame rather than take responsibility for their own circumstances. It then creates a very unsettling situation for everyone involved, as the situation no longer feels safe. So, how do you avoid the blame game?

Firstly, it is about creating a safe place. Creating a culture in which it’s ok to make mistakes, and within which we look to find ways to improve together. The culture here is about the journey of improvement, not a binary pass/fail moment. Secondly, it is about the leader modelling a ‘vulnerability loop’. In other words, when the leader is vulnerable about the things they need to improve, it creates a culture where it is ok for everyone to do the same.


We tend to think of responsibility as a one-off act. The bold person, stepping forward and stating, “I take full responsibility for that.” In reality, taking responsibility is an ongoing act.

We take responsibility when it goes wrong.

We take responsibility when we review it.

We take responsibility when we plan steps for improvement.

We take responsibility when we check how that improvement is going.

Taking responsibility is continuous and critical throughout the journey for improvement.

Can we help you?

Improvement can be hard. If you would like help evaluating how you can improve something, coaching could help you. If you need someone from outside of the team to help you, Everyday Leader’s team of coaches can help you effectively work out what needs to be taken responsibility for, review and evaluate what needs to improve and how to plan the improvement. Give us a call if you would like us to help you explore this and empower you and your team.

Everyday Leader is here to empower, inspire and equip you to do that. If we can help you find a way forward, through coaching, training or consultancy, do let us know if we can be of help to you. Contact us now:


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