Blame and Accountability

Tom GibbonsChange, Learning, Organization DevelopmentLeave a Comment

About 3 years ago I posted The Language of Value as a comment on the subtle use of language to create a perspective of personal value for ourselves by making someone else’s perspective seem wrong.  It is a subtle, often unconscious use of language to prop ourselves up while tearing others down.

This post takes a look at a similar dynamic that seems to be growing at an alarming rate; the consequences of which problematically compromise accountability not only in organizations but as a general phenomenon as well.

This dynamic is the assignment of blame and its affect on accountability.

You can watch the news, listen to political debates, watch coverage of sporting events, listen to organizational conversations or even listen to children talking and more and more you hear people blaming others at the first sign that things are not going as planned.  It may be subtle or obvious but often the first thing that occurs when something goes even slightly array is a search for someone to blame.  This search will often trump the search for WHAT might have gone wrong.  It’s almost as if once blame has been assigned we can move on, the cause of the problem conveniently rests with someone else; someone who is incompetent, bad, morally corrupt or perhaps just unlucky.  The key part of this dynamic is that once the assignment of blame is accomplished, accountability also rests with the person blamed.  Everyone else is exonerated.

No wonder in this epidemic of blame laying the entire concept of accountability is being compromised.  The more that can be done to confuse the process of taking accountability in the first place the easier it is to avoid being blamed after the fact.  What we now see is less and less willingness to take accountability since there is a good likelihood if you do take it and things don’t work out you will be the one blamed while others mysteriously disappear from the scene.

Just think what this does to innovation in organizations, or even simply taking initiative.  What this creates is a cascading down of accountability, where people will only take accountability when they are sure of success, where they have the power to direct and enforce action.  This means at the bottom of the organization there is nothing to be accountable for and at the top of the organization there is a vacuum of accountability.  Ever wonder why so much is being made of leadership and character at the top of organizations these days?  These people are too busy being accountable for things levels down from them and avoiding getting caught up in the assignment of blame for being accountable for the things they should be doing at the top.  It’s the only way their organizations can operate day to day!

Perhaps most importantly in this dynamic though is how insidious it is.  It is EVERYWHERE!  Just take a listen or look at the interactions going on right around you.  I bet you can’t go a single day in your organization without some evidence of blame being assigned.  Listen to your own language and see if you are caught up in this as well.  Are you assigning blame to someone else for even the simplest diversions from what is hoped for?

How do we change this dynamic?

Let’s not look to others here, let’s look to ourselves.  When things don’t go as planned be the first to ask ‘How do we solve this?’ or ‘How do we move forward from here?”  Take accountability for your part in everything that happens to you and push accountability on everyone else.  Be the first to move to problem solving.  When you hear blame being assigned, take accountability to stop it, even if you are not directly involved.  Don’t let blame be assigned to you, take it yourself if necessary and move on.  And when you take blame for yourself ask for others to take accountability in moving forward.

And perhaps most importantly, listen to your own language.  This assignment of blame has crept into the most subtle use of our language.  Listen to what you say to yourself and to others.  Be impeccable with your language and don’t let yourself be part of this debilitating dynamic.

If we all can take accountability for stopping this dynamic I think we will see real change in our organizations.  Changes in innovation, changes in risk taking, changes in challenging the status quo and changes in moving forward in very uncertain circumstances.

Changes for the better I think.

Author – Tom

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