Blame and Accountability

21 July 2017

I’ve been struck by the number of times ‘accountability’ comes up as a development theme when discussing Talent Programmes with clients - "push decision making down the tree and hold people to account” is often the aspired culture.  What I hear about less frequently is a spirit of ‘learning’ when these decisions go wrong.  

Matthew Syed in his excellent book ‘Black Box Thinking’ makes the point that 'holding people to account' and ‘blaming them’ when things go wrong are two quite different things.  Where a culture of blame is allowed to exist, decision making is suffocated - people dare not decide and  as a consequence the organisation becomes sluggish and inflexible (far from the ‘agile giant’ that most global corporates aspire to become).

Where holding people accountable translates as blame, mistakes are buried and no learning takes place, so the same mistake gets made over and over.  Furthermore, if the organisation tries to control the problem by increasing ’the punishment’, deeper concealment and back-covering becomes the norm. The Health Service in the UK is sadly a good example - much quoted by Syed in his book.

Holding people to account (and encouraging decision making) has to go hand in hand with a spirit of ‘learning from mistakes’.  In the same way that the airline industry record information in a ‘back box’ for examination without recrimination, so too must organisations seek to establish a culture where mistakes can be openly owned and discussed with the sole purpose of ensuring they don’t happen twice.