If you’re a leader, you’ve probably heard the quote “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Unfortunately, when it comes to which one gets more attention from executives, it’s strategy, without question. This is perhaps because, to most executives, strategy is easier to manage. What many leaders fail to realize is that if they aren’t managing their culture, their culture is managing them. If you have any doubt as to which category you fall in, ask yourself this question, is your culture working for you, or against you?

If you’ve ever felt like your culture wasn’t working for you, odds are it was a culture of blame. Blame is an accountability killer. Ironically, we live in a society that has blurred the lines between the words “accountability” and “blame.” In fact, many people use those words interchangeably. Leaders who don’t distinguish between the two are laying the groundwork for a culture that works against them.

Blame is an accountability killer. Click To Tweet

The Difference Between Accountability and Blame

When people say “That politician must be held accountable for his actions”, what they’re really saying is “That politician is to blame and must be punished for his actions.” Accountability is not the same thing as blame or punishment. To be accountable means to take responsibility for results, good or bad. It means finding solutions to problems and applying lessons learned in order to improve future results. Being accountable is constructive because it focuses on the future.

To be blamed, on the other hand, is to be accountable for culpable actions. Blame is often assigned before all the facts are known and assumes that people, not the systems they operate in, are the problem. Blame is focused on the past and on punishing the offender. The thinking behind assigning blame is that identifying the offender and punishing them will correct the poor behaviour. The reality is that the only thing people learn from being blamed is to become better at hiding their mistakes.

“The only thing people learn from being blamed is to become better at hiding their mistakes.” Click To Tweet

 

 

The Misnomer of “Human Error”

Historically, most workplace problems and accidents have been blamed on “human error.” Why? Because it’s easy. It’s human nature to take mental short-cuts and look for simple explanations and scape-goats. The old adage “To err is human” is more accurately stated “To blame is human.”

We now know that most unintended outcomes are usually caused by a combination of factors, and that flawed systems (or “processes”) are often the prime culprit. Take for example the CEO whose sales team was providing lack-luster results. The CEO was frustrated that the salespeople weren’t working together as a team despite his continued urging to do so. He discovered that when his sales associates came across a lead in another salesperson’s territory, they wouldn’t pass on the lead to the other salesperson. “How could they behave so selfishly?” the CEO wondered. What the CEO didn’t consider is that he was offering an all expenses-paid trip to Bermuda only to the top salesperson. As the saying goes, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”

Blame Spawns Three Deadly Cycles

Cultures of blame are inherently inefficient. Countless dollars are essentially thrown out the window (think stacks of $100 bills) from the three self-destructive cycles that are put into motion as soon as someone in the organization is blamed. These three cycles are the Cycle of Inaction, the Cycle of Ignorance, and the Cycle of Infighting.

Cycle of Inaction

The very act of blaming someone is a form of punishment. Its primary intent is to shame the accused. People tend to fear punishment and shaming, and fear is generally paralyzing. When a manager blames an employee for making a mistake, the employee tends to recoil into the safety of “wait until told.” Almost overnight, employees stop taking the initiative, and instead, bring all problems to their manager to await instructions on how the boss wants them to be resolved. This, of course, frustrates their manager. Employees sense their boss’s frustration with them, but aren’t quite sure why. This state of uneasiness causes once confident, competent employees to turn into mumbling, bumbling, mindless servants paralyzed by fear.

Stephen Covey aptly named this cycle of behaviour “Gofer Delegation” because the boss ends up doing all the thinking and the employees simply carry out the boss’s orders. The fear of blame not only causes employees to lose confidence and shrink from action, but it also stalls their career development. Employees caught in the Cycle of Inaction tend to either stagnate in their careers, or they eventually leave so they can use their brain where it’s appreciated.

Cycle of Ignorance

The ostensible rationale for blaming someone is that if you sufficiently rub their nose in their mistake, the offender will think twice before making the same mistake again. Studies (and common sense) have proven otherwise. Instead of making fewer mistakes, people in blame and shame cultures simply get better at hiding their mistakes. Meanwhile, executives are oblivious to what is really going on in the trenches. They aren’t getting the results they want, but they don’t know why. So they aimlessly introduce new incentives or quality programs hoping this will change things. The real reasons for the poor results remain obscured and no learning occurs. The new ‘fixes’ cause an onslaught of unintended consequences and produce more problems, which people try to hide.

Cycle of Infighting

When people within an organization fear their leaders and each other, they naturally expend a tremendous amount of energy trying to protect themselves. Simon Sinek taught this principle in his TED talk entitled Why good leaders make you feel safe. When people inside an organization fear each other, they engage in a subtle war called “corporate politics.” The goal of this war is to deflect blame and defend your ‘turf.’ Obviously trust and cooperation cannot exist in such an environment. This makes everybody engaged in this war less effective at their jobs for two reasons:

  1. the more time they spend crafting meticulous emails designed to deflect blame, the less time they have to do their job; and,
  2. they won’t be able to access help from their ‘enemies’ – people who would otherwise share their knowledge and resources.

The more that people engage in blame wars, the more unresolved problems will pile up, which in turn increases the need to deflect blame onto others.

The 8 Accountability Practices

The following eight practices lay the foundation for creating a culture of accountability.

  1. Delegate effectively. This includes taking the time to clearly articulate the desired results in writing, specify the delegate’s decision-making authority, provide required resources, and provide regular feedback. Most, if not all, problems would be mitigated if leaders followed this pattern of delegation.
  2. View problems as learning opportunities. The Kaizen Institute has a saying “Where no problem is perceived, there can be no improvement.” Never forget that we are all still learning to do our jobs better, and we learn best from our mistakes. Most importantly, make sure the people you lead know that you hold this belief.
  3. Lead with inquiry. Don’t assume you have all the facts. When you ask questions with a sincere desire to learn, you are less likely to provoke a defensive reaction.
  4. Remove emotion. Feedback and guidance turns to blame the instant the person on the receiving end perceives angry and frustrated tones. Even if the anger isn’t directed at the person accountable for the results, they will likely interpret the emotion as blame. Additionally, emotion interferes with the brain’s ability to problem solve and think logically.
  5. Focus on the problem and solution, not the person. Focusing on the issue or problem, not on the person, creates an open, trusting, communication-rich environment.
  6. Look for breakdowns in the process. Flawed systems, or processes, contribute to most workplace problems. We tend to assume that the cause of problems happened right before and in the same vicinity where the problem occurred. Think beyond the obvious to discover contributing factors separated from the problem by time and proximity. Poor leaders ask “Who’s at fault?” Strong leaders ask “Where did the process break down?
  7. Act like a leader. When things go right, good leaders deflect the credit. When things go wrong, good leaders take all the responsibility. That’s tough, but that’s the price of admission to leadership (or rather, it should be). It’s just a shame that most people in leadership positions didn’t get that memo.
  8. Ask yourself “How did I contribute to this problem?” If you are part of the same system in which the problem was discovered, your actions probably had a role in the situation. Asking yourself this question will help you apply all the other seven accountability practices.
Poor leaders ask “Who’s at fault?” Strong leaders ask “Where did the process break down? Click To Tweet

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22 Comments

  1. mike hooper on March 21, 2019 at 1:43 pm

    great article … very interesting and helpful

  2. Paulina Pereira on January 9, 2020 at 12:37 am

    This article definitely answers my questions pertaining to accountability versus toxic environment and how to go about it. It all starts at the top of the pyramid and so the leader must be able to adapt to the accountability, best if its instilled as a culture and not as a personality trait!

    • Michael Timms on January 10, 2020 at 6:32 pm

      Excellent… glad you found it useful Paulina! Yes, organizational accountability depends on how well leaders a) demonstrate personal accountability as well how well b) they create a culture of accountability by providing the 6 conditions of accountability.

  3. Gale on January 31, 2020 at 11:57 pm

    Great article. A no blame culture is one in which everyone wants to work in, to feel respected and valued.
    Most people are trying to do their best at work and want to be acknowledged for this.

    • Michael Timms on February 3, 2020 at 7:08 pm

      Thanks Gale. Good point… people don’t go to work to fail, so it’s not very helpful when managers make them feel like a failure.

    • Paul Solon on September 16, 2021 at 6:36 pm

      Good points, thank you.

      Yet I am saddened. B c the knowledge is being spread around more by people like you and articles like this. But nothing seems to change. We humans seem as stuck today as we were yesterday.

      I don’t see we are getting any smarter. Nor any dumber. We stay more or less the same.

      • Michael Timms on September 17, 2021 at 9:54 am

        Hi Paul, thanks for your comments. No need to be saddened by how well others demonstrate accountability. You can’t control other people, but you can control how well you demonstrate accountability and your example is how we will inspire others to follow suit!

  4. Sia GT on February 16, 2020 at 6:48 pm

    Excellent article….! CEO, Chairman, Board of Directors, top management and all leaders must read this interesting article. Organization culture starts from them.

  5. Anonymous on April 2, 2020 at 2:07 pm

    I refer back to this article often! Thank you!

  6. Ray Bigger on May 17, 2020 at 9:14 am

    I think the majority of the media should read this then they might stop using a platform of blame as there misplaced battering ram to get answers to questions, a lot of which are blame orientated. They mix up blame and accountablity daily hence interviewees “pull up the drawbridge” and defend their turf

    • Michael Timms on May 18, 2020 at 3:52 pm

      Yes, I think that, to a large extent, the media has perpetuated the confusion between accountability and blame. It’s important that we perpetuate the correct definition of accountability, which is this:

      “Accountability is taking ownership of results and working to improve future results.”

      When we blame others for poor results, we’re failing to look in the mirror to see how we may have contributed to those results. Blame, therefore, is the opposite of accountability.

  7. Sangha on June 9, 2020 at 4:14 am

    Very Well written ! A lot of insightful details.
    Look forward to more articles.

    Thank you!

  8. B Molnar on June 11, 2020 at 7:40 am

    Insightful article on accountability, and what blaming, passing the buck and hiding mistakes can lead to.

  9. Anonymous on June 24, 2020 at 6:31 pm

    Good read…. clearly defining that what we often do is blame and the consequences it has.

  10. Anonymous on June 29, 2020 at 1:13 pm

    How can this be applied to the racial tensions we are experiencing in the United States? We all recognize that there needs to be change, but when blaming one side, nothing positive comes about. I wonder how long before humans are willing to use accountability vs. blame?

    • Michael Timms on June 29, 2020 at 2:02 pm

      I’m glad you recognize that nothing positive comes from blaming others. That’s the key premise of this article.

      Recent brain research suggests that the reason we blame is because our brain routes negative events to our amygdala to be processed, while it routes positive events to be processed by our frontal cortex. Unfortunately, our amygdala only seems to come to one conclusion: “That jerk did that on purpose!” In other words, we are hard-wired NOT to give others the benefit of the doubt. I discuss this in some detail in a forthcoming book.

      For example, I recently heard someone innocently say “Ya, I think I agree with a sign I saw that ‘all lives matter'” not knowing how this statement is being interpreted by the Black Lives Matter movement. Lots of people would be tempted to jump on a comment like that and condemn the person who said it. But what’s the outcome of that? It would likely push that person into defending their position as opposed to listening to, and accepting, why that comment could be offensive to some.

      With this knowledge in hand, we need to become more aware of when our amygdala is forming our conclusions, and do a better job of forcing ourselves to give others the benefit of the doubt.

      • Shannon on December 29, 2020 at 10:29 pm

        Wow a lot of what you are saying really fits nicely with the neurobiology work that Dr Steven Porges has done in the field of trauma. When you are able to remain in a curious and empathic position, you enable others to avoid triggering of their autonomic nervous system and entering a defensive position. Instead they are able to remain open and engaged with you.

  11. Anonymous on December 1, 2020 at 4:57 am

    Great Article, Just want to share that from my experience awareness and creating a safe environment opens the path to a culture where people take accountability and where they grow in different ways (willingness and knowledge).

  12. Mike on April 7, 2021 at 12:05 pm

    “Blame is an accountability killer” – I am going to use that. Great phrase. And a really clever way to frame it.

  13. Anon on August 23, 2021 at 2:52 am

    Great article and such a relevant insight – the comparison chart is excellent.
    Have also seen this no-blame focus in the Mercedes F1 team and have been looking at the best way to apply to my organization.
    The recurring question from my advisors is something along the lines of:
    What happens in the ‘limit’ or ‘edge’ cases? How does this remain to hold true?
    Examples: When a team member is deliberately ignoring clearly instructed processes, is knowingly acting against the best interests of the organization, is deliberately repeating a mistake, or is in another way genuinely at fault?
    While the obvious answer (in line with this article) may seem to be that the process for hiring/training/checking is deficient – it may not always be possible to unearth the above traits until too late. How do you prevent the no-blame culture from breaking? Especially if in this type of case the person responsible is not accepting responsibility.

    • Michael Timms on August 23, 2021 at 3:40 pm

      Thanks Anon for your comments! That’s a very good question… ‘How do I deal with performance problems without blaming?’ Here are a few thoughts for you:

      1. Keep in mind that culpability is not as obvious as we may think. Ask questions before jumping to conclusions about intention.

      2. Has the leader set the example of admitting when they make mistakes to make it safe for others to say “That was my bad.” Once the leader has said “This is how I think I have contributed to the problem…” then they may ask “Do you see other factors that contributed to the problem or things you could have done differently?”

      3. Is the work aligned to the employee’s strengths? Are we asking them to do things they aren’t naturally good at and therefore setting them up to fail?

      Once the manager has asked themself and the employee these questions and still concludes that the employee is deliberately ignoring processes and making mistakes, then the manager can start discussing consequences such as “I won’t allow our team to keep failing and I don’t think you want to keep failing. Maybe this isn’t the right workplace for you.”

      I share tips like these and much more in my new book How Leaders Can Inspire Accountability. I think you will really enjoy it. Check it out at https://availleadership.com/how-leaders-can-inspire-accountability/

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