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The Blame Game: Why Workers Fear Accountability

Accountability is a word that you hear often. Politicians enjoy using it when criticizing opponents or other areas of government, though rarely applying that term to themselves. You also hear the term accountability used in the business arena. Wall Street wants boards to be more accountable. Executives speak at all-hands meetings about the need for everyone to be accountable. It always seems to be a word used right before someone starts blaming something or someone for some problem that has arisen.

Unfortunately, the word accountability has become synonymous with blame and punishment. Typically used to refer to previous performance – meaning something already done that no one can change; they can only be punished for it. That’s why many people get fearful when accountability comes up in a speech or conversation.

Although you can learn from past mistakes, successful people look forward, not back. When an organization looks to be successful, it empowers people, instead of blaming, to motivate them to create results. In an atmosphere of empowerment, people will take responsibility. To do so means providing:

* Information – Give proper information to understand the requirements and objectives

* Authority – the appropriate authority to make decisions regarding those objectives

* Incentive – having rewards in place to reinforce those good decisions to do the right things

Many problems that require accountability can be traced to lack of information, or everyone waiting for someone else to decide, or a reward system that creates accidental adversaries within an organization instead of collaborators.

In a culture of blame, there is an attempt to localize problems to a particular area or person. Blaming is often about who instead of why. Taking responsibility for failure is part of the learning process, placing blame abdicates responsibility. Blaming provides a simplistic solution to issues that probably have broader implications. Not to mention focusing on the unfixable past, instead of working toward creating successful future results.

The most corrosive aspect of the “blame game” is that it encourages manipulation, concealment, deceit, “gaming” the rules, or even organizational paralysis. By forcing problems underground by having a culture of blame, it increases the negative impact when issues finally come to light.

There is an important flip-side to accountability – being able to demonstrate your achievements. Most employees dread writing their self-assessment for yearly performance reviews because most don’t pay attention to their own performance. In a culture of empowerment and responsibility, people are more likely to understand organizational objectives and how what they do directly impacts the company’s success.

Here are three suggestions on how to move from the “blame game” to motivated responsibility:

1) Create an atmosphere of sharing information, granting authority, and rewarding collaboration. This motivates people to take responsibility, make good decisions, and get more of the right things done.

2) Be willing to be responsible enough to be held accountable. Even best efforts can have unintended consequences or undesired results. An organization based on responsibility, not blame, learns and improves with each misstep.

3) Proactively document your responsibilities and evidence of your success. This is your way for checking how you are doing toward achieving shared goals. In a previous blog I talked about putting together a Have You Started Your “Love File” ? Don’t wait until your annual review to track your accomplishments.

I would also suggest keeping yourself on track by having your organization’s objectives posted in your cube, office or workspace. If you visit me, you will see posted in my cube the core values of SAP and my own group’s strategy plan for the year. Make sure you are doing the right work, not just working.

Organizations, and individuals within the organization, have to answer to a variety of stakeholders, who may have different definitions or notions of what constitutes accountability. An important indicator of an organization’s (or individual’s) strength and integrity is how accountability is handled and administered.

I’m not blaming you if you feel that the word accountability has negative associations. Take back the intent and apply it to yourself in terms of responsibility. That way, you can take responsibility for making a positive impact on your organization.

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  • Bob: My high school has a 6-part motto, with 2 of the opposing terms freedom and responsibility (google them and Baltimore Polytechnic for the other 4), so I have a long view of what those mean.  The risk factor (“I could lose my job”) is the fear factor many cite as the demotivator.  I read _The Corporate Blogging_ book by Debbie Weil recently, with one takeaway being innovative companies, and risk-taking employees, are publishing blogs and other new media in order to get ahead and keep ahead.  What percentage of Fortune 500 companies have public blogs?  Jim
  • They do have public blogs…but the content is triple reviewed and legally vetted and comes out about as fresh and exciting as shredded wheat…at least for most big companies.

    Nice blog, Bob!