Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 51;   December 21, 2005: Is It Blame or Is It Accountability?

Is It Blame or Is It Accountability?

by

When we seek those accountable for a particular failure, we risk blaming them instead, because many of us confuse accountability with blame. What's the difference between them? How can we keep blame at bay?

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.

Blaming and being blamedBlame 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
of blaming
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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Nine Project Management Fallacies: III  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs 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.

Reader Comments

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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenWTggeZTAsuYNdCqfner@ChacOHpooJeymgMbNdbmoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

ApplesCurrying Favor
The behavior of the office kiss-up drives many people bats. It's more than annoying, though — it does real harm to the organization. What is the behavior?
Threatened and fearfulThe Costs of Threats
Threatening as a way of influencing others might work in the short term. But a pattern of using threats to gain compliance has long-term effects that can undermine your own efforts, corrode your relationships, and create an atmosphere of fear.
A straw-bale houseResponding to Threats: I
Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.
Small cage with canary used in testing for carbon monoxide after the Hollinger Mine fire on February 10, 1928On Being the Canary
Nobody else seems to be concerned about what's going on. You are. Should you raise the issue? What are the risks? What are the risks of not raising the issue?
A Strangler Fig in AustraliaProjects as Proxy Targets: I
Some projects have detractors so determined to prevent project success that there's very little they won't do to create conditions for failure. Here's Part I of a catalog of tactics they use.

See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Puppies waiting intently for a shot at the treatComing June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
A VoiceStation 500 speakerphone by PolycomAnd on July 4: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenhmFYeVTbzozeGvkLner@ChacKhhOqNqYiJGfVRrJoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

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.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs 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!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.