First of all, I must apologize to the readers because in Italian the terms responsibility and accountability are both translated with the single term of ”responsibility”, since ”accountability” does not have a direct equivalent term in our language. The same happens for the two related adjectives “responsible” and “accountable” which are both translated as “responsible”. My intent here is to highlight the difference in the impact that can have in an organization the different approach of blaming “a posteriori” or the delegation of clear responsibilities.
Many people need to blame others and/or circumstances because, feeling victims, they are able to justify what happens. That way, they don’t need to do anything, just complain and wait.
On the other hand, uncertainty is not an aspect that is easy to live with. We need to know where, what and why to keep control and know that, in one way or another, the problem will be solved. This means that, if someone else is to blame, so is the responsibility to find a solution. But, the culture of blaming – that is, finding the wrongdoer when a problem arises – is of little use. It only serves to make us feel with a clear conscience. Unfortunately, it is a phenomenon that we find in many companies and especially in those cultures based on giving orders.
In reality, it is a bit of a tendency of us human beings. When we find the culprit and, consequently, attribute blame, we act on aspects that concern history, fear, and the past, when, on the contrary, we should shift the focus on aspirations, hope, and the future.
In some companies (not a few) there is a steady dynamics of blame and the consequent habit of shaking off all responsibility. The borderline level between blame and Responsibility depends on various factors: voluntariness, levels of preparation, the experience of the employee, the effects of the action taken.
Work on Responsibility is a positive stimulus to express one’s potential. It does not penalize the person but supports them in the full and maximum assumption of responsibility and in the expression and development of all their personal and professional resources. Blame focuses on a past event that cannot be changed. Responsibility analyzes past events but then capitalizes on their learning on similar present and even future occasions.
With blame, one is penalized, in responsibility one learns. In blame, there is always a defeat, in responsibility, there is always a learning. While in the responsibilities everyone assumes their own, the blame falls on others through an action of blaming and/or denial of responsibility.
So, the impact of one or the other on the internal climate of an organization is significant.
Blame fuels a negative climate, distrust in the organization, fear of colleagues and supervisors, and blocks the free expression of potential, creativity, and initiative.
Responsibility, on the contrary, stimulates the development of a positive climate, encourages trust between colleagues and towards superiors. Responsibility creates an environment that stimulates creativity, innovation, resourcefulness, free initiative, sharing, enthusiasm, and risk-taking.
It is quite intuitive that hoping to stimulate a sense of responsibility through a blaming and penalizing approach is naive (or by incompetents). Rather, it much better to entrust people with some clear accountabilities.
Of course, it is opportune to detect some actions or incorrect behaviours. But, in these cases, it is good that the company points out the employees its responsibilities, while the judiciary will work on guilt and punishment. There are some indicators to recognize a company or a manager whose collaborators live every activity/task/situation with the fear of blame, rather than with the enthusiasm of responsibility.
Some managers unknowingly feed the climate of blame by not exercising the delegation correctly: often they limit themselves to delegating, without defining specific deadlines or moments of intermediate control, and then suddenly demand the completed work. With this attitude, the collaborators, feeling penalized, will live very badly any assignment and delegation received. Worse still if this happens on a system that doesn’t manage loads and workflows.
The responsibility principle makes us responsible for the selection processes (did we choose the right collaborators?), for the training of collaborators (did we adequately prepare them for their roles and tasks?), for the processes of delegation, support, and control (it is clear what they should do, how, when, with whom and why?).
Creating a responsible environment is the best way to identify, select and develop people capable of assuming responsibility.
Instead, if the environment is blaming and penalizing, other people will grow up who unload the blame on others or not to take any initiative so as not to make mistakes. Surely behind it lies a great systemic intelligence, but not a great sense of accountability and belonging to the organization.
From these considerations comes the conviction that finding a culprit does not solve anything and, therefore, it is much more productive to engage in the individual and organizational transformation that allows all to move from the logic of guilt to the logic of accountability.
If something doesn’t work out, it’s easy to get creative in finding a reason to blame others. We must instead learn to relax, to overcome that urgent need to find a responsible person, and to tolerate the temporary uncertainty of not knowing, at least until we have a broader view of the matter. Taking our time.
Only exceptional people are able to accept and internalize his/her accountability for what happens. It is not about taking all the blame when there is a responsible person, but about being able to accept accountability when it is appropriate.
When Organizational investigation, instead of looking for the deep reasons, becomes a hunt for the culprit, the scapegoat or witches, stimulates even denunciation. The entire system loses efficiency, stability, growth potential, flexibility, responsiveness, competence, and quality of the environment.
Looking for the cause, and not the culprit, is what should be done. It is appropriate to intervene not to punish those who made a mistake, but to try to eliminate the cause that led to the error. And even this is not enough, we need to take a step further. It is necessary to leverage aspiration and the future, creating the conditions for that error not to be repeated. We must intervene on the fear of being blamed, because this not only inhibits the assumption of responsibilities and risks, but also blocks processes of recognition, identification, and admission of the inefficiencies of a system.
When faced with a problem, we must forget about blame and focus on the goals, on solving what is possible, and on changing what does not work in order to improve and do things right.
The culture of blame and the culprit must be restructured, rebalanced, re-framed in a larger and more complete perspective, aimed at continuous improvement, of growth and enhancement of the single individual and the group, in favor of the culture itself.