- July 21, 2016
- Posted by: Joan H. Underwood
- Categories: Leadership, People
Fear of accountability is a strong indicator of blaming.
Recently I’ve had a number of occasions to reflect on this trilogy responsibility, accountability and blame as I listened to the news about mass shootings, allegations of corruption at the highest levels of government, plagiarism, poor financial performance etc.
Last week an accused murderer escaped from a courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. In the immediate aftermath the Broward County Sheriff blamed the County Commission for the prisoner’s escape. In fact, his statement to the press began and ended with him blasting the county for failing to provide adequate funding to his department. Somewhere in between he mentioned that the prisoner was armed and extremely dangerous.
Of course, the Commission was quick to respond detailing how much money they had allocated and questioning whether the Sheriff had effectively and efficiently utilized the money for the designated purpose. Based on those facts, what’s your opinion? What’s at play here ? Responsibility? Accountability? Blame?
In the context of our current discussion, the word responsible is value neutral i.e. it’s not inherently good or bad. A working definition for responsible is having an obligation to do something, or having control over or care for someone, as part of one’s job or role. The Broward County Sheriff, by virtue of the authority vested in his position, was responsible for the care and control of the prisoners in the courthouse that day.
Persons in whom responsibility is vested are expected to be reliable and effective in executing their assigned roles and associated responsibilities. Therefore, there is usually an expectation that they will be answerable for their performance. And that brings us to the second word in our triad.
Our working definition for accountability is the condition wherein a person is expected to take ownership of his/her actions or decisions.Accountability follows from responsibility in that one is called to give account for one’s handling of the area of responsibility. While, as previously stated, responsibility is value-neutral, accountability tends to come into play when the outcome of the administration of one’s responsibility is less than or otherwise inconsistent with expectations or agreed performance standards.
In the case of the escape from the courthouse, in pursuit of accountability one would have investigated the sequence of events in order to identify exactly how the prisoner was able to escape, where exactly security was breached/compromised and what measures could be put in place to rectify any weaknesses in the system.
In its most productive format, while accountability is based on past performance, it is future-oriented. By this we mean that it is geared towards extracting lessons from what has transpired in order to influence future performance and secure better outcomes.This contrasts sharply with our third and final concept.
Blame focuses exclusively on finding fault. As such, it anchors itself in the past with no orientation towards the future. It has a distinctively punitive orientation as opposed to a desire to learn and improve. As such, if we allow the focus to remain on blame, there is no guarantee that the undesired outcome will not be repeated; there is no guarantee that we learn from the experience.
So if we return to the matter of the Broward County Sheriff’s budget, and the Commission decides to open the coffers and invite the Sheriff to take as much money as he would like, what would be best use of said funds? If officials have not taken the time to thoroughly investigate what transpired and to diagnose all the vulnerabilities in the system as well as the role played by human error and other contributing factors, they could spend all the money in County’s coffers without really rectifying the security problems. Instead, what they would have accomplished is merely the blaming (and perhaps shaming) of the County Commission.
The bottom line is that we all have responsibilities. Inevitably things will go wrong at some point in time either despite of us or because of us. When that happens, we have a choice of pursuing accountability or blame.
If we choose the former path, we adopt a mind-set characterized by curiosity and the sincere desire to learn and improve. We extract lessons and carry them forward to secure better outcomes in the future.
However, should we choose the blame option, our mission is accomplished as soon as we identify someone at whom we can point an accusatory finger and saddle them with blame for what transpired. In that situation, the primary outcomes are more likely to be damaged relationships/reputations and a missed opportunity for personal and organizational growth and development.
Please note that the UTDS series on the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) will return next week with the third article from Justin Simon QC.
Thank you for this insight. Going forward it will certainly change the focus of my revision and analysis of any task/performance. Responsibility and accountability are definitely more productive and positive building blocks of any organization. They provide the framework and nurture the environment and attitude for improved performance and opportunities to learn and improve both personally and from a best practices standpoint.
The art of blame is almost instinctive. If one should review the actions of a toddler who gets into trouble, it is automatic that they will say ” It is not me” even if there is no one else around. If this is not corrected, it will be carried into adult hood. In the world of Continuous Quality Improvement, advises that instead of blaming any person, processes should be reviewed. A review of systems and processes will reveal flaws in the system rather than the point-in-time incident. It will lead to greater efficiency and effectiveness and will promote a Just Culture. This is a culture where people in operations voluntarily report errors because there is no fear of punishment. Even when punishment of any kind is required, it will not seen as retaliation but rather, as a necessary action based on the issue. A just culture encourages open communication and presents opportunities for the retooling of staff, including management. In the example of the the prison break, there is likely to be demotivation and a desire to cover one’s tracts.
A lot said in a few lines, inspirational, thanks!
Both sets of comments are really on target. I really appreciate Audrey’s bringing the consideration of what is just into the discussion. The blog reminds me of an exercise in describing a ‘mistake’, and my own struggle with understanding my responsibilities and accountability, without being mired in guilt (self-blame) which is not at all constructive. Thanks Joan.
The body investigating the alleged break in of the Prime Minister’s home would be well served to read this article.
Great expositions by all on those familiar tenants,as old as time.This will definitely help to guide my thinking and decision making in so many life situations.