We all make mistakes--we're human, after all. But, what happens when we ignore the mistakes our coworkers and the people who work for and with us make?

Recently, Karen Firestone--CEO of Aureus Asset Management and author of the book Even the Odds--told me a story about her friend Gwen, who runs an office design firm. One day she discovered that 100 bright red chairs had arrived at a customer's location.

There was just one problem: the chairs were supposed to be slate grey--not bright red.

Gwen, fully aware that one of her salespeople had incorrectly placed a large order for slate grey chairs with a supplier, explained that she just couldn't bring herself to ask directly who had caused the problem. 

After the incorrect order was received, the firm ended up returning and replacing the furniture, partnering with the supplier to revise the order sheet. But, surprisingly, not one finger was ever pointed at an employee of the office design firm. No one was blamed. And no one immediately stepped up to take responsibility for this obvious mistake.

One week later, however, the guilty salesperson did finally acknowledge that he had accidentally caused the snafu. He confessed to several colleagues, all of whom jointly helped construct the solution.   

Listening to Karen tell her story about Gwen, I realized that situations like this happen at work more often than we think. When someone who works under our supervision has made a mistake, it is not uncommon that we feel reluctant to ask that they take responsibility for their mistake. Perhaps they'll never make another mistake, right?

Wrong.

Avoiding accountability can lead to some major risks for a business:

  • When mistakes remain unaffiliated and uncorrected, chances are they'll happen again and again.   
  • It's more difficult to incentivize workers when they feel that their best efforts are undermined by other people's mistakes, for which they share responsibility.   
  • If employees are not held accountable, they may develop a sense of untouchability, arrogance, or lack of humility.  

It's important to ask: Can a work culture really survive without either individual accountability or someone asking who's at fault?

Karen asked other CEOs if they had a similar reluctance to inquire directly about errors--conducting a survey of senior executives to learn how they feel about accountability for major errors in their organizations.  

About half stated that colleagues typically come forward on their own. When no one comes forward, managers feel a need to determine the source of the problem with the goal of eliminating any repetition.

But an overwhelming 85 percent of surveyed executives feel that personal accountability is necessary. Survey participants stressed building trust internally (76 percent) and steering difficult conversations about errors toward problem solving (71 percent) rather than accusation.

Ultimately, reducing the focus on blame and encouraging accountability are not mutually exclusive. Work environments need to incorporate more sensitivity, starting at the top. When leaders themselves take responsibility, the stigma around admitting mistakes is reduced, radiating empathy across an entire organization.

Published on: Aug 16, 2019
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