Life lessons: The difference between blame and accountability

06 April 2018

Blame at work

Organisations that adopt a ‘blame-free’ culture are more effective, according to all the evidence. If you can genuinely make the shift, it’s easier to learn from mistakes (because people own up to them without fear) and therefore improve performance. 

And because people are free to make mistakes, they’re more likely to be innovative and take risks, because they know that getting it wrong won’t be a barrier to their future success.

It’s easy to say, but hard in practice to make the shift, because people that are used to watching their back are very reluctant to let their defences down just because they’re told that they should. But that’s another question - if you can do it, it works.

By extension, you might say that it would be better if we could be a blame-free society. I agree, but my instinct is that we’re a long way from that. I don’t have data to indicate whether we’re moving further away or not, but in public discourse whenever anything goes wrong, it’s still the instinct for many of us to ask first who is to blame, and second how can we get them fired, regardless of whether that outcome is proportional to the transgression.

Most recently it has been Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Something went wrong with Cambridge Analytica, so automatically some people are saying there should be change at the top. And the qualification for the person to replace him? Almost certainly someone who’s never made the same mistake. So we’d rather fire people when they’ve learnt by their mistakes and replace them with people that haven’t learned from those mistakes yet. Genius.

There’s a difference, by the way, between mistakes in execution and flaws in character. If someone is caught stealing, or lying, or otherwise abusing a position of trust - you can be reasonably sure that’s a character flaw that doesn’t disappear overnight. That sort of stuff should get you fired and pronto. But I digress.

What about in your own life? In this modern age when so much blame is flying around, it’s easy to get into the state of mind where you get on your own case for whatever things you think are wrong. If we can’t easily change society, should we at least be applying the lessons to ourselves?

It’s one of the most commonly quoted attributes of effective leaders that they don’t waste time blaming themselves or others for things that go wrong. Instead, they hold themselves accountable and move on. You might think that’s a contradiction, but there is a key difference between blame and accountability.

Self-Blame looks like this.

“Oh, that product didn’t sell, I’m such an awful salesperson”.

“Oh, that cake didn’t rise, I’m such a hopeless cook”.

“Oh, that person’s no longer speaking to me. I’m truly unloveable”.

You’d be a remarkable human being if you’ve never expressed similar sentiments at some point. And, of course, Self-Blame’s a close associate with Blame For Others.

“Oh, I’d be a great salesperson but my boss is a jerk who won’t put me in front of the best leads”.

“Oh, I’d be a great cook but my family only ever want to eat ready meals”.

“Oh, I’m a great friend, but that person’s a jerk so good riddance to them”.

The thing that all of these have in common is that they actively prevent you from learning any useful lessons and getting better. Blaming yourself is an absolute. “I’m so awful” etc. It enables you to wallow in a feeling of self-loathing without actually doing anything - because if you’re awful then that’s just a fact, isn’t it? 

Accountability looks different. First of all, it involves taking ownership of everything that goes wrong. That’s right - I mean everything. It’s not your fault, but it’s your responsibility. Because all of the examples above are just about a technique that needs to be learned. All of them. 

“Oh, that product didn’t sell. Let me understand what I did wrong with the marketing to see what I should change to get a better result.”

“Oh, that cake didn’t rise. I’d better research the reasons why cakes don’t rise and see if I can identify what I did wrong”

“Oh, that person’s not speaking to me. Let me try to put myself in their shoes and work out what I said or did that might have provoked that reaction.”

All of these are examples of holding yourself accountable without blame. You’re not accepting a negative outcome as inevitable either because of an ineradicable character flaw in yourself, or the malevolent intent of someone else. You’re seeing it as a problem to be solved. A technique to be learned. Something to improve.

And guess what - wherever you’re starting from, having that as a mindset will work better for you than either self-hatred or adopting a victim mentality.

The key leap is to accept the world the way it is, as an environment you have to operate within. So you face obstacles to your success? Guess what? Everyone who ever succeeded had to overcome obstacles. The ones who succeeded are the ones who saw it as a problem to be solved, rather than bemoaning that, in their uninformed opinion, some other person got ahead with fewer obstacles for whatever reason.

These are problems to be solved. Let’s go back to my original observation that we live in a blame culture as a society. I could spend a lot of time bemoaning the fact, and talking about how unfair it is. Or I can simply accept it is a current fact of the environment - one which I would like to change for sure, but one whose reality I have to deal with right now.

The fact that Mark Zuckerberg is in the position at Facebook that he cannot be fired, he can only resign, makes you think that maybe he already contemplated how to proceed with his project in a way that dealt with the fact we live in a blame society. So long as he has mechanisms to hold himself, and his company, accountable that may well work out for him. Time will tell.

So what’s your next step to holding yourself accountable and abandoning blame? What would that look like in your life?