A Picture of Personal Accountability

A cool soda in a crowded restaurant can be more than a pleasure. As author John G. Miller relates in QBQ: The Question Behind the Question, it can be a revelation

It was a beautiful day in downtown Minneapolis when I stopped into a Rock Bottom restaurant for a quick lunch. The place was jammed. I didn't have much time, so I was happy to grab the one stool they had available at the bar. A few minutes after I sat down, a young man carrying a tray full of dirty dishes hurried past me on his way to the kitchen, but noticing me out of the corner of his eye, stopped, came back.

"Sir, have you been helped?" he asked.

"No, I haven't," I said, "but all I really want is a salad and a couple of rolls."

"I can get you that, sir. What would you like to drink?"

"I'll have a Diet Coke, please."

"Oh, I'm sorry, sir, we sell Pepsi. Would that be all right?"

"Ah, no thanks," I said with a smile, "I'll just have water with lemon, please."

"Great, I'll be back." He disappeared.

Moments later he came back with the salad, the rolls, and the water. I thanked him, and he was quickly gone again, leaving me to enjoy my meal, a satisfied customer.

Suddenly, there was a blur of activity off to my left, the "wind of enthusiasm" stirred behind me, and then, over my right shoulder stretched the "long arm of service," delivering a 20-ounce bottle, frosty on the outside, cold on the inside, of -- you guessed it -- Diet Coke!

"Wow!" I said. "Thank you!"

"You're welcome," he said with a smile, and hurried off again.

My first thought was "Hire this man!" Talk about going the extra mile! He was clearly not your average employee. But the more I thought about the extraordinary thing he'd just done, the more I wanted to talk to him. So as soon as I could get his attention, I waved him over.

"Excuse me, I thought you didn't sell Coke," I said.

"That's right, sir, we don't."

"Well, where did this come from?"

"The grocery store around the corner, sir."

I was taken aback. "Who paid for it?" I asked.

"I did, sir; just a dollar."

By then I was thinking profound and professional thoughts like "Cool!" But what I said was, "Come on, you've been awfully busy. How did you have time to go get it?" Smiling and seemingly growing taller before my eyes, he said, "I didn't, sir. I sent my manager!"

I couldn't believe it. Was that empowerment or what? I'll bet we can all think of times we would love to look at our "boss" and say, "Get me a Diet Coke!" What a great image. But beyond that, his actions paint a marvelous picture of personal accountability and The Question Behind the Question. We'll go into the specifics of the QBQ in the chapters to come, but for now let's take a look at my server's thinking and the choices he made.

It was the lunch rush. He was already busy, with plenty to do. But he noticed a customer who, though not in his section, looked as though he needed some attention, so he decided to do what he could to help. I don't know what was in his mind at that moment, of course, but faced with a similar situation, many people would have had thoughts like these:

"Why do I have to do everything around here?"

"Who's supposed to be covering this area, anyway?"

"When is management going to provide us with more products?"

"Why are we always so short-staffed?"

"When are the customers going to learn to read the menu?"

It's understandable that someone would feel and think that way, especially when frustrated, but the truth is that these are lousy questions. They're negative and they don't solve any problems. Throughout the rest of the book we'll refer to questions like these as Incorrect Questions, or IQs, since nothing positive or productive comes from asking them. They're also the complete opposite of personal accountability, because in each one, the implication is that someone or something else is responsible for the problem or situation.

Unfortunately, though, they're often the first thoughts that come to mind. It's a sad fact that when most of us are faced with a frustration or challenge of some kind, our first reaction tends to be negative and defensive, and the first questions that occur to us are IQs.

The good news is this: That moment of frustration also presents us with a tremendous opportunity to contribute, and the QBQ can help us take advantage of it. The moment the IQs pop into our heads, we have a choice. We can either accept them—"Yeah, when are we going to get more help around here?!"—or reject them, choosing instead to ask better, more accountable questions such as "What can I do to make a difference?" and "How can I support the team?"

This, in a nutshell, is the essence of the QBQ: Making better choices in the moment by asking better questions. That's exactly what my server did. He didn't ask IQs and get caught in the downside of the situation. Instead -- in the moment -- he disciplined his thoughts, made better choices and asked better questions. Whether he used the words or not, his actions clearly indicated accountable thinking such as "What can I do to help out?" and "How can I provide value to you?" His choices made the difference.

As I left that day, I gave him a good tip, as anyone would have, bouncing my quarters across the bar. (Just kidding. It was the excellent tip he deserved.) And when I returned a couple of months later and asked for "my favorite server, Jacob Miller" -- I love his last name -- the hostess said, "I'm sorry, sir, Jacob is no longer..."

My thoughts flew fast. "NO! You lost my own personal server? You lost a guy who looked at me and thought, 'What can I do right now to serve you?'!" I just couldn't believe they had let him get away.

But I didn't say any of that to her. I simply interrupted with, "Oh no, you lost him?" to which she brightly responded, "Oh, no sir, we didn't lose him, he was promoted to management." My first thought was "Management, what a waste!" (Go ahead, smile -- even if you're a manager.)

The truth is, I wasn't at all surprised that Jacob, with the way he thought, would be so quickly on his way toward his chosen goals. That's the difference personal accountability can make. Everyone wins: customers, coworkers, the organization, everyone. And for Jacob, beyond the tips and the promotion, I can't help but think the greatest win of all is the way he must feel about himself at the end of a day of making better choices, asking better questions, and practicing personal accountability.

Reproduced with permission from QBQ: The Question Behind the Question by John G. Miller (Putnam -- $19.95)