Personal Accountability Brings Freedom

A quick story, often attributed to Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892):

A duke boarded a galley ship and went below to talk to the convicts manning the oars. When he asked what their crimes were, almost every man claimed that he was innocent, blaming someone else or accusing the judge of taking a bribe. 

There was one, though, who said … “I deserve to be here, sir. I stole some money. No one is at fault but me. I am guilty.” 

When the duke heard this he shouted, “You scoundrel! What are you doing here among all these honest men? Leave their presence at once!”  

The prisoner was released. The others were left to toil away. 

The key to his freedom was his admission of guilt.


So, 2014 marks a pretty cool milestone for us at QBQ, Inc., as it’s been 20 years since “The Question Behind the Question” (QBQ) was born.

Two decades of writing, speaking, and training on one powerful principle:


I must admit, however, working from my office in the Miller home and traveling alone to speak, I’ve wondered once or twice, Is the content outline that our audiences use during QBQ! sessions still on target?

Well, I got the answer to that question the other day …

One of the Incorrect Questions (brief tutorial of IQs vs. QBQs here) that has been on our hardcopy content outline since the beginning is this:

“When will others do their job right?”

I recently learned how relevant that “IQ” is while sitting with the executive team of an outstanding organization as they parsed the results of an “employee engagement” survey. The overall numbers were stellar but, interestingly, the survey statements that got the lowest marks were …

      • My peers are committed to excellence in their work.
      • My employer retains/promotes highly qualified people.
      • Others demonstrate effective conflict resolution skills.
      • Management seeks/acts upon employee suggestions.
      • There is good communication/teamwork between departments.

Again, the lowest survey scores were centered on the statements above.

Is there a pattern?

I see a clear theme of humanness—one that has existed since long before the guilt-admitting inmate was freed from his floating prison—and it’s this:

Whatever is wrong with the world is not wrong with me.

What does it cost an organization when people ask IQ’s such as these?

“Why don’t people work as hard as I do?” 

“When will others do their job right?”

“Who’s going to improve this place?”

There is no “budget line item” showing the price of those questions in dollars, but trust me—it’s substantial.Whining

Instead, imagine each individual in your organization asking introspective, self-reflective questions like these:

“What can I do today to be more effective?” 

“How can I do my job better?”

“What can I do to improve my performance?”

These accountable questions—we’ve called them “QBQs” since 1994—release me to work on the only person I can change:


And trust me again, there’s tremendous freedom in that.

Discussion Questions

Share a time you truly put personal accountability into action … what did it free you from? Why don’t more people practice personal accountability?

Comment below!

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12 Responses

  1. This morning, a Voice Mail was left on my office phone. The caller called the correct organization but the wrong extension. I could have forward the message taking the, “That’s not my job” attitude. Instead I made time to get the answer and returned the call. The customer is happy. I am happy (learned something in the process) and I don’t have to wonder if the customer was contacted or not.

    Congratulations on 20 years of the QBQ.

  2. The great thing about personal accountability is the freedom it gives you to change your situation. You can always improve, grow and develop. Personal accountability just helps you get there much quicker than the alternative of playing the blame game, whiner or victim
    Love the reference to The survey. Great tag team idea. We use QBQ to train our New Hires as well to enhance and set the tone for them coming into our culture.

  3. John, do I see an IQ here? 🙂

    Should it be…… Why do I not practice personal accountability more?

  4. Do not get me wrong John… I love QBQ and am an ardent follower of all your quick notes… I try my best to apply them in my daily life… I have a long way to go but am sure I can get there!!!

    Practicing PA gives me great relief from guilt.. Guilt that I did not do what it takes to set things right…

  5. This something that needs to be used in our family situation….5 grown children who live within 20 miles of their 90 old father….seems only two of us can step up to the plate and help out with what needs to be done….I guess I look at it like it’s my job to return the care he gave me all those years, but others unfortunately are looking for the day they can “cash in”….how sad it that… much easier it would be to all work together, but only I can do my part and hope that the others wake up before it’s too late……keep up the good work, hope the next 20 are as good for you….

  6. We have a storage room that we keep supplies from paper towels to tools . This room was packed so tight you couldn’t get in there to get something out. Everyone, including myself, just threw the stuff in there and closed the door. After ready the QBQ books I asked,Who is going to put his stuff away? My answer now is” I am going to put this stuff away!!” Thank you John for teaching me personal accountability. This is going to take me to new levels.

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