Leadership: Screaming Your Way to the Top?

Screaming Teams

When was the last time that a fighting, bickering, self-serving group of people or their leader inspired you to do better, to work harder, or to achieve the team’s goals?

Yeah… probably never. That’s what I thought.

Or how about this…

Have you ever seen a project die at work, and yet no one is responsible for killing it?  Everyone just points fingers, then runs away for cover. How does one maintain integrity in such complex and ambiguous systems?  How do leaders nurture cultures of accountability that keeps poisonous behaviors and practices at bay?

The $10,000 Problem

One afternoon while on a business trip to LA in my ad agency days, the entire team called me on speakerphone.  They were desperate, frustrated and were shooting arrows in every direction. The issue is that our organization sent a direct mail piece with a coupon offer that was only good for that weekend to the wrong zip codes. Oops. Because of a small clerical mistake, we just tossed ten thousand dollars down the drain.  Everybody was in panick mode and defensive posturing quickly changed to offensive finger pointing. 

Who Killed the Project?

My colleagues were at each other’s throats

Account Services blamed the Production Manager. 
The Production Manager blamed the Creative Team. 
The Creative Team blamed Account Services. 
There was much fear was in the air. 
Each person wanted to be seen as competent and credible. 
No one wanted blame. 

Ad agencies are fast-paced and all relevant details are tracked with the precision of an air traffic controller.  They even have groups at ad agencies called traffic departments.  The pressure can feel as though lives hang in the balance. Expectations are high and everyone seems to work on a knife’s edge; no room to make mistakes because one slip and you’re done.  Witch hunts in agencies are not uncommon and those who cannot perform are quickly let go.

This dynamic is a shame because so many talented people are stepped on and removed for reasons that are trite and superficial. Things could be different if a different culture were in place.

Cultures of blame create fear.  These cultures perpetuate competition, defensiveness and evasiveness. Nobody really wins; they just have brief moments of not losing.

In this type of culture, there seem to be even fewer long-term winners and the rest seem to boil in a caldron of blame, infighting, and persecution. (Whew… I am glad that I am out.) I find this type of environment hazardous to one’s health.

Maturity Prevails

On the contrary, cultures of accountability encourage honesty.  When we are deeply accountable, we know that conditions will change, problems may arise, and that we will need to actively adjust our priorities.  Deep accountability is not about doing everything we said we were going to do, when we said we were going to do it. It’s about dynamically managing and communicating. We expect the unexpected.  We make agreements based on the information available to us at that time.

We support our colleagues in this, understanding that they are also managing agreements in these complex systems.  We encourage open dialogue and assume their best intentions.  Obviously, at times, issues occur because of the incompetency or lack of effort of an individual.  These people will become pronounced and obvious in a high functioning team, in time.

We listen for the challenges of our clients, suppliers and colleagues and renegotiate our agreements when necessary.  We stay curious and strive towards improving the process.

So rather than ask who killed the project, consider asking “how can we keep the next project alive?”  Create a virtuous cycle of accountability.

How are you doing at ending back fighting, limiting finger-pointing, and lessening the amount of unnecessary politics in your group? What challenges do you face in halting behaviors and practices that are harmful to your team’s mission? How clear are you and what to do to advance to the next level of productivity & accountability with your team? I’d love to hear your stories!

Add to: Facebook | Digg | Del.icio.us | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati

Ashley Munday, Network & Thought Leadership, at
Barrett Values Centre.
Ashley can be reached at ashley@valuescentre.com

Image Source: thumbs.dreamstime.com

5 responses to “Leadership: Screaming Your Way to the Top?

  1. This past year, in a conversation with a member of the management, a member of my team was told a decision made on a project has historically been a bad one. The idea had been mine and I could have kept quite and no one known the difference. Instead, I spoke up and said the idea was mine and I had lead the charge on it. The manager questioned my sanity for speaking up, but I explained to him I will always take credit for the good along with responsibility for the bad.

    The next week my youngest son was in trouble with my wife for spilling his cereal all over the kitchen floor and my oldest son stood up and said, “Mom, it was not his fault, I made the mistake.” hearing this I stopped what I was doing, came out of my office and took the time to give him a high five and tell him what a great thing it was and how I was proud of him for taking responsibility for his actions. When you are a responsible person you are setting an example for others letting them know you will not abandon them in a time of need and you will be there to support them when the going gets rough.


  2. Hi Ashley,

    I deeply resonated with your thoughts on a culture of accountability. It takes maturity, courage and taking the high road, as they say, to hold yourself accountable and not fall into the blame game. A good operating principle for me has always been to take whatever energy arises from a situation and use it positively to fix the problem. Playing the blame game accomplishes nothing other than spreading negative energy.

    Quite a few years ago, a book I was managing through production at a publishing company was printed without some critical graphics. I was mortified. Rather than point fingers or avoid taking responsibility, I realized that the only way to rebuild trust at that point would be to not only take full responsibility for the mistake, but also offer a creative solution to the problem. Taking this step meant going to the VP of editorial, who was feared by everyone in the company (he often took people to task for much lesser mistakes). I apologized and posed my solution. Calmly he said, “Nicole, sh*t happens.” That was all. He respected my courage then and continued to respect me throughout my career at the company.

    Since then, as soon as anyone started the blame game, I would immediately say, “let’s stop focusing on finding blame and find the solution instead.” It was a simple interrupt that would reset everyone’s perspective.


Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.