Accountability or Consequences

What Is It We Really Want?


Recently I was able to participate in a four day conference focused on organizational safety. While every organization I work with has some kind of challenge regarding accountability and holding people accountable, it’s especially challenging for organizational safety professionals. This is because they have the unenviable responsibility to investigate accidents and in doing so, there inevitably comes the part of the process that involves accountability because something went wrong and some one needs to be held accountable for what happened.


However, it’s not just safety professionals who suffer from what I call the conflation between accountability and consequences. I’ve been working with companies of all kinds in a bunch of different industries and this confusion lives everywhere because I think culturally we have come to think of accountability as the thing we must do when things go poorly: outcomes are not good and someone or groups of people or entire organizations must “be held accountable” for those bad outcomes and impacts. But accountability is not a consequence. It’s just not the same. 


So when we are asking for people to be held accountable, what are we really expecting? Because holding someone accountable is an act of clarity. It’s a conversation we have, a practice of sorts, to understand if a person will take ownership for the choices and decisions they’ve made and the resulting impacts of those decisions. It’s also the expectation that they’ll take ownership and responsibility for what they are willing to do to improve based on the error in judgement or behavior or attitude as well as the effort to actually do it. Taking responsibility is not punishment. Accountability is not punitive. 


This mindset so many have is part of what makes it difficult to practice. We hear sentences from people in positions of power and influence in organizations that sound like: “We can’t have that! Those results are unacceptable and you’re going to need to hold your team accountable.” What are they really saying? What do they want when they call for accountability? Are they saying, “Those results are crap and you need to get your team to take responsibility for doing a better job?” Let’s hope! Or are they saying, “Those results are crap and your team needs to be punished?” Sometimes, I don’t think it’s clear. 


It’s certainly not clear for folks doing safety investigations. Mostly because they’re dealing with the worst of the worst outcomes. But here’s what I think about the difference between going for punishment versus going for ownership when you use the term accountability: if you’re going for punishment (actually wanting consequences) then you must own that you’re not interested in learning or change. When there is no room for ownership of choices, no room for ownership of improvement and no ownership for change then there is absolutely no room for learning. But if you’re going for clarity and looking for how choices were made and what would improve those decisions and behaviors and outcomes, then you’re set up for learning and actually getting better. And at the end of the day, most people, really do want to do a better job.