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Accountability: What we can learn from martial arts

12/06/2010 07:55 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Isn't it frustrating when people don't take responsibility for their mistakes?

From the coworker who can't seem to get their projects in on time to the spouse who consistently forgets to pick up the dry cleaning, there's always a reason, and it's never their fault. The traffic was terrible; Joe didn't get me his data; I wasn't sure what you wanted. The list goes on and on.

It's easy to spot problems in other people, but who among us hasn't done the same thing?

We formulate excuses for our tardiness before we walk in the door. We get defensive when someone reminds us of something we forgot to do. Or we minimize the importance of a mistake, telling ourselves that our failure to do whatever really isn't that bad, and when you think about, where did they get the right to saddle us with this thing in the first place?

It's a natural human tendency to avoid potentially painful situations. Admitting that you made an error or fell short of the mark feels like it would be painful, so we instinctively avoid it.

But in another ironic case of "avoiding the potential conflict actually results in more conflict," we cause ourselves more pain by not taking responsibility.

Most people will forgive a mistake. It's when you get defensive and try to wiggle out of it that causes the bigger problems.

Internet guru Michael Alvear describes how he learned this lesson:

"It was early in my advertising career. My boss was out of town. Some ad copy came over from copywriting. I looked at it and thought, 'Well that's not very good.' But I wasn't in charge, so I let it go.

My boss was soooo angry. She blasted me over the phone. I got immediately defensive. It wasn't my job to stop these things. It was the copywriting people who had done a bad job, not me. And besides, it wasn't that bad. I got more defensive, and she kept getting madder.

Then all of a sudden I stopped, and said, 'You're right; it's not good. I should have stopped it. First let me apologize for not being a good gatekeeper. Second, I'm going to walk over to copywriting right now to find out why this turned out the way it did and how we can prevent it in the future.'

She paused, took a deep breath and said, 'Thank you.' We were on the same team again. All the energy was now directed at solving the problem."

Martial arts students learn that it's more powerful to redirect energy than to fight against it.

Getting defensive about a mistake is fighting the energy. Resistance only causes the other person to push back harder.

I'm not suggesting that you give in on things that are important to you. But if you've made a mistake, just own it. When you apologize and take steps to fix it, the energy goes towards the solution, rather than fighting about the problem.

Taking responsibility for things doesn't cause you more conflict; it causes you less conflict. It's avoiding accountability that escalates and prolongs problems.

Accountability is a funny word. It can sound punitive, restrictive and downright mean when we apply it to others.

But holding yourself accountable is actually empowering. People who take responsibility for their actions know: being accountable for your mistakes gives you the power to fix them.

Lisa Earle McLeod is keynote speaker, author, columnist and business consultant who specializes in sales and leadership training. Her newest book, The Triangle of Truth, has been cited as the blueprint for "how smart people can get better at everything." Visit www.TriangleofTruth.com for a short video intro.

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