When disaster strikes, and you hear that you'll be "held accountable," do you calmly ask yourself, "How can I help us figure out what went wrong?" Or do you think, "How can I become totally invisible in a hurry?"
The word accountability is widely misused. To be accountable means to be responsible for and answerable for an activity. If something goes wrong, those accountable are expected to answer for their part in the goings-on, because we need their knowledge if we want to perfect our flawed systems.
Blame is something more. To be blamed is to be accountable in a way deserving of censure, discipline, or other penalty, either explicit or tacit.
Accountable does not mean "blame-able." Accountability and blame differ in at least four dimensions.
- Learning vs. punishment
- Understanding how the failure happened helps us prevent similar failures. Because those accountable often have useful information, we value their participation in organizational learning, usually in the form of retrospectives or after-action reviews.
- If blame is the goal, instead of real organizational learning, activity usually stops after we've found the culprit or culprits. There isn't much role for them in retrospectives. Once we tag them, their only role is to receive punishment.Fear of accountability
is a strong indicator
- Incidence of fear
- If we really are seeking those accountable, fear isn't a factor. Those accountable have nothing to fear unless actual negligence or corruption is involved, and then the failure isn't the issue — their malfeasance is.
- Fear of accountability is a strong indicator of blaming. Generally, if people fear being identified as "accountable" for a specific failure, it's with good reason — perhaps they committed some form of malfeasance, or maybe the "accountability" is actually blame.
- Org chart altitude distribution
- Those with responsibility are accountable, and those with the most responsibility are high up on the org chart.
- When we find those accountable at many levels of the org chart, we're more likely to be assigning accountability; when we find those accountable concentrated at the bottom of the org chart, chances are that we're assigning blame.
- Acknowledging interdependence
- Nearly everything we do is a group effort; rarely is only one person — or even one team — fully responsible for any action or decision.
- If we truly seek to find those accountable, the result is probably a list — sometimes a long list. If we seek to blame, usually one person is enough to feed the beast.
Even if your culture is blame-free, when you seek those accountable for a failure, you might encounter reactions based on past experiences of blame and punishment, rather than the accountability of here-and-now. To maintain an accountability-based culture free of blame, accept these reactions for what they are, and work to bring everyone into the present. Top Next Issue
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
Blame-oriented cultures and accountability-oriented cultures differ in other ways, too. For indicators that an organizational culture is a blaming culture, see "Top Ten Signs of a Blaming Culture," Point Lookout for February 16, 2005. For the effects of blame on the investigations of unwanted outcomes, see "Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why," Point Lookout for April 4, 2012. For more on blaming and blaming organizations, see "Organizational Coping Patterns" and "Plenty of Blame to Go Around," Point Lookout for August 27, 2003.
- Erin Kelley-McNeely, EKM Consulting Services & Writing Solutions
- Boy…this is one of your best ones! I hope it gets full attention from your audience with all the holiday stuffage. It's also very timely to year-end objectives being met (or not) with performance reviews for 2005 the first order of business in 2006!
- I wanted to add something — in case you reprise this article. Accountability versus Blame also fosters creativity rather than stifles it. Accountability also allows for true pride in a job well done. Accountability is not just for those things that go wrong. I have seen people live in fear of blame and either spend too much of their time in CYA or lose their creative edge altogether.
- Great work Rick. You never disappoint!
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 8: The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions
- The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
- And on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.