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“The Buck Stops Here” but Should it ?

President Harry S. Truman

“The buck stops here” is a phrase that was popularized by U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who kept a sign with that phrase on his desk in the Oval Office. The phrase refers to the notion that the President has to make the decisions and accept the ultimate responsibility for those decisions.

It May have originated with the game of poker, in which a marker or counter, frequently in frontier days a knife with a buckhorn handle was used to indicate the person whose turn it was to deal. If the player did not wish to deal he could pass the responsibility by passing the “buckhorn” or “buck“, as the marker came to be called, to the next player.

What is empowerment ?

When was the last time you empowered someone? Was it when you last voted in a general election, perhaps you gave your vote to a member of a professional body who had campaigned to become committee member or maybe you promoted someone in your team at work?  When things went wrong who did you blame, who was held accountable, was it you for making a bad decision or was it the incompetence of the person you promoted? Perhaps you shared blame?

When were you last empowered? Did you feel that you could make decisions and make a positive impact, did you feel empowered or did you consider that if things went wrong because of your decisions and actions or inaction, that someone else would be accountable,  responsible and liable for what you did or did not do?

Empowerment  can be a complex subject, however let us start from the premise that if you are empowered or you empower someone, then you should accept that you have responsibility and with that responsibility  should be a measured element of accountability and blame when things go wrong. Would it be true to say that when you empower someone you must allow them to take the blame if things go wrong? If this is not the case, then did you really empower them? Of course, this would depend on circumstances.

In my opinion when you are empowered you must have the right to be held accountable and where appropriate be held liable for a loss.

Many years ago, 1987, I was employed at a smelting which was in its first few weeks of operation. This meant that it really did not matter who you were or what your position was, at that time you were expected to help out anyway you could.

The smelting works would take in scrap or tailings produced by other refining works and refine them again. One operation was to refine a metal such as gold or silver, from Deer Park Tailings. The tailings or waste were about 99% in volume vesiculate which was about 10% in weight. This vesiculate was a waste product.

The company where I worked at that time had purchased a huge shacking table that needed its rubber matting covering. In basic terms feed material is fed on to the table at one end, a slow stream of water is introduced, the table shakes and vibrates and is set at an angle. The light material, vesiculate, makes it way to the edge at the top of the table and is run off as waste. The heaver elements, metals, are ejected towards the end of the table and are gathered for further refining.

I had done a bit of DIY around the works while waiting for materials to be delivered ready for refining. As such my immediate manager asked me to apply the very expensive rubber carpet to the table. This manager was a Chemist, a scientist. His immediate manager was the business owner, a Metallurgist and a renowned scientist in his area of expertise. My manager could have asked any one of five engineers to do the job, but he asked me.

To cut a long story short, I cleaned the wooden table surface, applied the glue and spent a great deal of time laying the rubber carpet. It looked great, very flat and stuck firmly. However, within an hour bubbles appeared, and the rubber matting started to lift. I had used the wrong sort of adhesive. The adhesive had a poor reaction with the rubber.

An Engineer who had been watching me do this delicate task smiled as the rubber matting started to lift. He walked over to me and said “knew that was going to happen” he smiled as he walked away. I had spent a day doing the task, the expensive rubber matting had been potentially ruined, and the feed materials was sat in the warehouse waiting to be refined and sold on.

Who was to Blame?

The owner of the business relied on my manager, the Chemist, to get the table ready. He in turn chose me to do the job. The Engineer watch as I messed things up and I had not read the properties of the glue. I just grabbed the first can that said “Glue” on its label.

So, who was to blame, who was to be accountable and perhaps even liable and suffer the cost of the losses, and did it matter? As we all stood looking at the table and doing a post mortem the site Supervisor chipped in and said “lets not spend the rest of the day playing politics, lets just do the job again”.  At that time, I was not in a management position and as such I was not blamed which made me a little frustrated. I was not important enough or competent enough to be blamed. I protested and said “look this is my fault” but despite this protest, those with the “power” wanted to take the responsibility. I feel sure you, dear reader, will understand why this was but let us just consider why.

When you are the manager, then you are responsible and accountable. You have set the task, ensured that the person who you assigned the task to is capable to carry out the task and you monitor the task to ensure all is good. If things need to be addressed, you make an intervention. Once the task is completed, you thank your member of staff for doing a good job. You then report to your senior manager or the Board that things are going well, and they thank you. If things did not go as planned and perhaps a loss occurred, you as the leader would take the blame, be accountable. Perhaps suffer a talking to or even worst a reduction in that years bonus. But in all of this you were empowered, that is your right.

But what about the member of staff? Were they left feeling empowered? I doubt it. In the case of the rubber matting and the shaking table I was left feeling that my contribution was little more than a task, move this here, put that there, dig a hole and fill it in. This, I felt was not good leadership and I was less than inspired that day. I wanted to know that what I was doing and the way I did it, meant something. You might say that I wanted to be part of the bigger scheme of things. In time I was promoted a total of three times landing in a management position. One of my duties was to check the feed materials for the presence of toxic gases. I was given the responsibility and empowered to reject a consignment of feed stock until it was made safe. My decision stood and was not questioned. The materials would be processed to remove any toxic materials. I was empowered, responsible and accountable. The staff who were to work with the material trusted me to get it right.

Twenty years later I am owning and managing my own business. We have forty staff across three offices including a start-up office based in Dubai UAE. The business started in 2003 with just three full time staff and two part time staff. Within five years we had built a significant enterprise.

As the business grew in terms of staff I was able to consider the management of each subject area. While I wanted everyone to have responsibility, I also knew that with responsibility came a level of authority and an element of accountability and autonomy. My belief is that you should allocate a job role, such as dealing with post, and build in a suitable level of responsibility but if you are making someone responsible for something then you must allow them some authority and a level of accountability.

What I wanted to do was to empower each member of staff and my approach was to apply the tasks, ensure that the member of staff understood what was required and then apply the level of responsibility and authority they had. Once the member of staff was competent in the task, I could then allow an element of accountability to them to get it right and where appropriate, improve the task as part of a wider operational system. What this meant was that member of staff would have to answer if things went wrong, but it also meant that when things went right, and the task was improved they got the credit and reward.

Having responsibility and carrying an element of accountability for something even if you are a first-tier worker is, I believe a great motivational tool. It empowers people and allows an element of creativity. Yes, its true that accountability and an element of liability maybe construed as “taking the blame” or in the worst case “being blamed” and even carrying the cost of the loss, but again if the member of staff is competent and feels secure that blame or accountability can be used to ensure that the same or similar mistakes or omissions are not made again, then that member of staff will do their upmost to get it right and improve things.

Recently I had a member of staff who wanted to undertake the tasks of his role but did not want any responsibility. He also wanted the same rewards for carrying out the tasks as another member of staff who was doing exactly the same job but who wanted and accepted the responsibility and accountability for what he did.

On the whole my approach is to grow your own, allow for mistakes and learn from them. Don’t apposition blame for errors, find the root cause and use these to make improvements. Empower each member of staff who wants to take responsibility for what they do but allow for those who just want to a job.

Have I ever got it wrong with this approach? yes on at least three occasions with three members of staff. My mistake was that I believed they “had it in them” to be a manager, but I was wrong. Not only did they not want the responsibility they were not capable of carrying out the tasks and the role. They did not want to be held accountable and could not see that taking the blame is not the same as being told they were to blame. This was my mistake and I took full responsibility for it and carried the loss, carried the liability.

Conclusion

In writing this article I realise that the reader might take a view that I have operated a blame culture, this is not the case. My view is that empowerment is only true if the empowered accept an element of blame where this is appropriate. If you are empowering a person or want empowering, then surely you must accept that a suitable level of accountability is appositioned to you.

‘In ethics and governanceaccountability is answer-ability, blameworthinessliability, and the expectation of account-giving. As an aspect of governance, it has been central to discussions related to problems in the public sectornonprofit and private (corporate) and individual contexts. In leadership roles, accountability is the acknowledgement and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions, and policies including the administration, governance, and implementation within the scope of the role or employment position and encompassing the obligation to report, explain and be answerable for resulting consequences’. Reference Wikipedia

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