Look back on 2015 and take account of accountability

Dec 15, 2015 by Paul Ferdais

As the calendar winds to an end, many career-minded crew may look back to see how successful they’ve been regarding their goals for the year and the actual outcomes.

I always look back to see how accountable I have been. How much ownership did I take for my actions — both good and bad — over this past year? The answers relate to how accountable I feel for my results, both positive and negative.

Accountability is a willingness to be answerable for actions. Because crew members pay attention to their leader’s behaviors, it’s vitally important leaders behave in ways that encourage everyone to be accountable for their work.

The first component of accountability is the acceptance of responsibility. Instead of trying to blame other people for mistakes, leaders who accept responsibility when something goes wrong demonstrate they know how to be accountable.

Before crew are willing to be held accountable, fear has to be eliminated from the equation. Of course, some may believe that fear is essential to getting work done. But fear creates compliance. That’s it. Fear does not encourage people to be creative or take initiative. In a fear-based environment, people do things to avoid the consequences rather than from any positive motivation.

There are two kinds of fear in this situation. The first is a fear of the leader. Perhaps the leader is untrustworthy, dishonest or unkind. Crew members are worried that any mistakes they make will be met with harsh punishment or criticism.

The second kind of fear is that of accountability. This kind of fear can stem from any number of reasons. Perhaps it’s easier to blame circumstances than be accountable. Perhaps it’s easier to blame someone else for failures. Sometimes people find it easier to be a victim than accept they’ve been wrong or have done something foolish.

This type of fear is about a person’s ego. For example, perhaps a deckhand makes a mess of a varnish job. Instead of admitting his mistakes or shortcomings, he instead blames everyone else – the other deckhands for not helping out, the mate for not having the right safety equipment, the captain for not having the right supplies, etc.  

Leaders can influence both kinds of fear. However, doing so requires leaders who can change their behavior. Either a leader has to become more trustworthy or honest, or a leader has to put in the effort to coach and train crew members who are afraid of accountability.

Consider whether there’s a culture of fear onboard. When crew make mistakes, are they afraid to admit their error? If so, is that because they fear their leader (do you get upset or ridicule them in front of others?), or is it because they don’t want to accept accountability?

Accountability isn’t something that can be forced on others. It’s a mindset. A culture that promotes accountability can be fostered, but the end result is totally dependent on an individual’s choice to act with greater accountability.

Leadership based on fear isn’t true leadership. Authentic leadership creates an environment where everyone feels psychologically safe to make mistakes. Only then will everyone embrace true accountability.

For the rest of the year, do everything in your power to be more accountable in your own role. When crew see you making the effort, it will encourage them to be accountable, too. There are many ways leaders can help build accountability in others. Put these five points into action and watch accountability onboard grow.

  1. Give support. Give as much support, coaching, training and tools as possible so crew members can succeed.
  2. Encourage autonomy. Give as much leeway as possible to get the job done. What does it matter if it’s not done your way, as long as it’s done to the standard you want?
  3. Give information. Be upfront with all information. No one likes to be kept in the dark.
  4. Provide resources. Give every resource that is in your power to give. As long as crew see you make the effort to get the resources from the boss or management company, they’ll make a strong effort in return.
  5. Set expectations. Set clear expectations at the beginning of the job or task. Establish clear goals, responsibilities, and consequences of action or inaction.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group. Contact him through www.marineleadershipgroup.com.