Ethics Coach

Blame and Credit: How to Encourage Fairness and Accountability Under Pressure

Blame and Credit: How to Encourage Fairness and Accountability Under Pressure
Image credit: J.D. King
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This story appears in the February 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »
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Q: We are under pressure to deliver results at my company. Energy is maxed out, and tempers and the blame game have disrupted what was initially a very collegial team. How do I lead through this rough patch? 

A: Blame is toxic, so the best way to change the atmosphere is to start with how you are dealing with the pressure. 

Ethical leadership starts with how you treat yourself. You can’t inspire or motivate when you are running on fumes. Self-renewal is a leadership responsibility; it shifts attitude, energy and sense of possibility. Take steps to take better care of yourself—whether it involves time out for reflection, yoga, the gym, eating better, more sleep, deep breathing exercises or, yes, a day off to hang out with your family. 

Ask a trusted colleague for feedback about whether you are coming across differently these days, maybe showing up as irritable or stressed, or if you’re doing more than a little finger-pointing. 

Once you have a clear picture of your own action, get your team together to talk about the way you’ve all been handling the pressure. Acknowledging that there’s a problem will be a good pressure release. Ask everybody for suggestions on how you could all work smarter. Leave blame out of the discussion—finger-pointing embarrasses, diminishes and humiliates, and is the opposite of supporting others in being accountable. 

Leaders who reinforce how each team member contributes to the whole and why what they do matters (to the company, the client, society or whomever), as well as deal constructively when mistakes happen, set a tone that motivates and inspires in good and challenging times.

After the meeting breaks up, consider hopping on the phone to set up a healthy in-office stress reliever: perhaps pay a masseuse to come in to do 15-minute shoulder massages or set up a standing delivery of healthy snacks. Just don’t have your overworked assistant make the call. Make this benefit a nice surprise for everybody.

Q: I’m considering getting a rewards credit card in my name exclusively for purchases for the bar and restaurant I co-own. This relatively new business would benefit from flexibility on the timing of the payments and my good personal credit rating. I estimate I can charge about $10,000 worth of expenses each month, so it would generate significant reward points and cash back. I may not get the card if I can’t personally keep any of the rewards, but it may be unfair to the business to hold on to all of them. I know sole owners who put everything back into the business, as well as employees who are allowed to keep rewards for business purchases and travel. 

As I am putting my personal credit on the line, what is fair to the other owners, the company and me?

A: Making “fair” your starting place is a solid basis for relationships. It enables consistency, transparency, two-way communication and greater trust among partners. Using fairness as your baseline also reduces the likelihood of grousing and resentment that can quickly poison a business environment. But you can’t determine what’s fair on your own. Fairness is both tangible (a result) and intangible (a feeling aligned with a purpose), so it can be different for each person.

I’m glad you checked in with me on the issue, but your next stop should be a sit-down with your partners. Along with figuring out what’s fair on the credit card, you can use the situation as a jumping-off point to talk about related needs for the business. 

Indicate that you are considering leveraging your own credit until the business is on stronger footing. Be upfront about the card’s rewards program. Ask the partners what they think. If it’s clear you’re the only one willing to step up to assume risk, determine together what percent of the rewards you will personally keep and for how long, being mindful that you are setting a precedent. If you don’t like the outcome, you don’t have to get the card. 

Also, since you’re not willing to get the card unless you can keep some of the rewards for yourself, I would urge you to take a hard look at your motivation. Is it really just for the good of your business, or are you hoping the business will give your personal airline-mile stockpile a boost? 

Edition: December 2016

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