What’s the difference? Accountability vs Blame

By Becky Picton, HOP Facilitator

Trucks operating in a dangerous road environment illustrate the difference between blame and accountability in a work environment, as discussed by Becky Picton from HOPLAB

Over the years, the line between accountability and blame has become blurred. Mistakenly, the two terms are often used interchangeably. As a result, the actions and behaviours of accountability now look suspiciously like that of blame. Sadly, phrases like “They must be made accountable!” are becoming all too common.

Yet, accountability can – and should – look very different to blame. Blame is defined as “to find fault” (1). Blame can be obvious (cue finger-pointing and shouting). But typically, blame in the workplace is subtle. For example, being sent home after an event, drug tested, and using phrases such as ‘it was down to human error’. Let’s be honest, regardless of the way it is carried out, blame is harmful. Where there is blame, there is no learning. This might be acceptable in low-risk, insignificant scenarios but has detrimental consequences in safety-critical or high-risk environments.

On the other hand, accountability is “the willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions” (2). How often are employees ‘willing’ to give their account of an event? Imagine a workplace where employees are open and honest about how and why an event occurred. Imagine the richness of information and learning we could get from events or near misses – gaining knowledge to enhance organisational safety, potentially saving future lives.

Understanding where change is needed

Firstly, we need to improve at listening and learning from our frontline workers. These are the ones closest to the work. The only outcome of blame is giving us someone to point the finger at. As a result, a culture of coverups is promoted along the way.

In truth, people want to be accountable for their actions, usually carried out with good intent. Accountability gives people a voice, enabling essential information to be shared.

Building a culture of accountability is a core component of HOP. The HOP Principle: Blame fixes nothing is explored in-depth in our 1 Day HOP Fundamentals training. While it is easy to say, “We won’t blame” or have a blame culture, it is difficult to do when situations arise. Therefore, Understanding the difference between blame and accountability is an essential first step.

1, 2: Merriam-Webster definition

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