Accountability – how to move beyond blame shifting

Accountability is having control or authority over one’s actions and decisions and being able to answer to someone else. To understand accountability one should ask the question: “Why do some people readily accept accountability while others shun it?”

People who embrace accountability make choices, take decisions and take charge. They like to be in control and ‘call the shots’ or have autonomy. They welcome challenges and look for opportunities. Accountable people have drive and a bias towards action. They are results-orientated, are ambitious and courageous. They have a sense of integrity and high self-esteem. They also have vision and see the big picture. They are self-driven and self-thinkers, thrive on achievement and value recognition.

This applies to people in the workplace just as much as it does in their individual capacity as a parent, home owner, client, patient, etc. Nobody else, not a boss or colleague, can be accountable for us, but we ourselves, period! By definition accountability plays an active and direct role in reaching the outcome for which one is then expected to give an account. 

Bill Price - Accountability

On the other hand, it is difficult to agree to be held accountable if there are huge risks involved, a certainty of punishment for failure or little chance of success or achievement. Other factors that can reduce accountability are:

  • undesirable consequences
  • lack of control over the situation and resources
  • limited chance of making a difference (only one small piece of the bigger picture)
  • lack of clarity on responsibility
  • lack of authority
  • lack of integrity, lack of trust and respect,
  • inconsistencies, more worthwhile alternatives instead of owning the ‘scraps of the table’,
  • others competing to take charge or do it better (boss)
  • a lack of self-esteem and personal initiative
  • a genuine lack of personal competency
  • a hostile environment and often an ‘open back door’ or
  • possibility to ‘shift the blame’. 

By definition it’s unreasonable to expect a bystander, who has had no active involvement and no control or authority over the actions or decisions, to account for the outcome. 

Sometimes a reluctance by people to account for their actions is because of too many controls and / or the boss interfering, taking over and not trusting the person to be able (competence) to take responsible actions! Lack of accountability is often also the direct result of dis-empowerment:

  • No clear vision and values and lack of support
  • No clear requirements, encouraging risk taking and giving recognition
  • Lack of information and boundaries or limits
  • Lack of real authority and demanding to do it, try it and fix it!

Accepting accountability is consequently dependent on whether a person, with the right attitude, is allowed and enabled to take actions and decisions. The answer therefore lies in the leader creating an environment which favours those conditions that make people want to accept accountability and suppress those things that give people an option of sidestepping their responsibility.

Putting accountability on paper does not always work, there has to be acceptance. A person must want to and take charge! If the platoon leader does not take charge and the general has to climb into the trenches to fight the battle, instead of looking at the strategy, then why have a platoon leader?

Roger Smith of General Motors put it this way: “You can’t push people… You can’t drag them. If they don’t want to do something… they will stand there and smile at you, but there goes the red seat in the blue car.”

People can become most ingenious if the time comes to account for specifically an undesirable event with serious consequences – ask any lawyer or judge! I found the simple ‘please explain’ and ‘what have you done about it’ to work wonders in holding people to account, together with removing the possibility of shifting blame.

Use this Accountability checklist to stop the blame shif

  • Have they got control over the situation and authority over the people?
  • Are the requirements / outcome clear and are they left to ‘get on with it’?
  • Are the means / resources in place (men, money, material, machines & method)? 
  • Have they got the required level of competence / ability?
  • Do they own a whole job to make a difference to the bigger picture?
  • Is there a non-hostile, supportive culture and do trust, respect and integrity exist?
  • Is the level of risk, including failure, acceptable and is there a choice?
  • Is the reward or recognition for achievement in balance with the risk?
  • Are there more worthwhile alternatives or a ‘back door’? 
  • Is there a lack of self-esteem, initiative or simply willingness?                          

Accountable = responsible to someone or for some action (answer for)

Responsible =

  • 1. having control or authority over (something)
  • 2. Being accountable for one’s actions and decisions.

Call in the business mentoring experts and grow the process in wise and wonderful and effective ways.

Also read How to work with a toxic colleague or boss

Bill Price

Dr Bill Price is an international speaker, author and executive coach. Dr Price is based in South Africa where he is well known as a leading Neuroscience practitioner and strategic sage who guides individuals, businesspeople and corporate leaders to achieve their full potential. He also helps empowers people in their personal lives around the themes, of leadership, getting the most out of life and relationships. Consider participating in one of Dr Bill Price's coaching courses or consider attending one of his free 'Synapses'. These neuroscience based webinars are held twice a month over Zoom dealing with a variety of different topics.

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