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Matt Somers

Matt Somers - Coaching Skills Training

Founder & Managing Partner

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It’s time to stop playing the Blame Game

We need to replace blame with accountability and this means taking stock of accountability best practices, all of which can be found above the line. So, where exactly is this line and how do we go about getting above it?
silhouette of man standing on grass field during daytime

I was talking with a C-Suite level leader recently about all things workplace culture and we landed on the idea that many organisations operate what we might call a blame culture.

He leaned back thoughtfully and said: “Yes, I think we have that here. I’m going to find out whose fault it is!”.

I sincerely hope he was joking. I didn’t like to ask.

Cultures of accountability

In 2021, I was introduced to the firm Culture Partners and the work they do around cultures of accountability – which we might think of as the antidote to cultures of blame.

My association with them gives me access to a whole host tools and techniques, so let’s see what we can use to illuminate this particular problem and replace blame with accountability.

Operating below the line

This model consists of two parts that are separated by a line in the middle, and it’s below the line where the Blame Game gets played.

  • It’s where we focus on why we can’t achieve a given result 
  • It’s where we focus on what we cannot control
  • It’s where we feel victimised and become frozen
  • It’s where we feel frustrated, miss opportunities and go nowhere

Now, it’s not wrong to go below the line; in fact, it’s a perfectly natural place to go when faced with difficult obstacles. But the danger lies in getting stuck there.

Imagine you have an important deliverable, and you’re not going to be able to meet the deadline for some reason and now you need a good excuse to get yourself off the hook. We’ll see in a moment if you can find one by going below the line.

First, let me show you what I mean by sharing a personal example. 

I got up early one morning when my daughter and her partner were home for Christmas, and I noticed the dishwasher needed emptying. The is certainly not something I enjoy doing and I considered all six of the typical below the line behaviours

BehaviourExcuse
Ignore or deny“Oh, I didn’t know the cycle had finished.”
Not my job“I’m supposed to take the rubbish out.”
Finger pointing“She should have done it!”
Tell me what to do“Do you want me to empty the dishwasher or do the vacuuming?”
Cover your tail“Don’t you remember? I told you last night and you said you’d do it.”
Wait and see“It’s not important, I’ll do it later.”

Now, see if you can come up with at least one example of each of the below the line behaviours to explain why you cannot meet your deadline.

BehaviourExcuse
Ignore or deny
Not my job
Finger pointing
Tell me what to do
Cover your tail
Wait and see

Here are some self-reflection questions on this:

  • Which one of these six below the line behaviours do you personally tend to lean into the most?
  • In your organisation, what percentage of time is spent below the line? 
  • What are the costs and other impacts of time spent below the line?

Going back to the below the line behaviours and excuses you came up with, how many were real obstacles that could get in the way of achieving results?

Likely, most of them, and that’s the problem. Such obstacles are often real and legitimate and, as such, exert a powerful force that pulls us below the line.

Again, it’s not wrong to go below the line – it may even  be therapeutic at times, but it’s highly ineffective to stay there and you won’t achieve results until you get above the line.

It’s not wrong to go below the line ... the danger lies in getting stuck there

Operating above the line

Above the line are the steps to accountability

  • Where we focus on how we will achieve the result
  • Where we take the see it, own it, solve it, do it steps to work with those things that we can control
  • Where we feel empowered and able to take the initiative
  • Where we get results, feel fulfilled and move forward in our careers

Do you think that if you were able to get more people in your organisation to operate above the line more of the time, you would see a significant improvement in your results? 

Where is the line?

The key is to recognise when you are below the line and to get above the line as quickly as you can.

The force that constantly tugs at you to pull you below the line comes from external events, but the force needed to move above the line can only come from within yourself.

And that means it can be hard sometimes to move above the line, but you don’t get the results you want until you do. In fact I would suggest that in any area of your life where you achieved a result you’re proud of, you went above the line to do so.

Culture Partners’ considerable experience of working with these concepts over the years has yielded a number of characteristics and habits of being above the line. 

We’ve seen some common themes emerge and have been able to refine them as a list of 16 best practices, four for each of the steps to accountability.

The key is to recognise when you are below the line and to get above the line as quickly as you can

When organisations use these practices to collectively move above the line, a very productive shift in how people think and act follows:

From To
Externalising the need for change (them)Internalising the need for change (me)
Blaming othersTaking accountability
Focus on doing the jobFocus on achieving results
Working in silosCollaborating
Telling people what to doEngaging hearts and minds

There’s much more to say on this and I’ll do so in future articles but, for now, you’ll have to excuse me…

…the dishwasher needs emptying!

Did you enjoy this? Why not read: Why leaders should always own up to their mistakes

Author Profile Picture
Matt Somers

Founder & Managing Partner

Read more from Matt Somers
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