How to hold people Accountability without shame or blame

 |  2 May 2022



Accountability is subject to continual discussion in the workplace. Every time we talk to leaders about what they would like to improve in their workplaces, inevitably, accountability tops the list. Every time we run a Dare to Lead™ program, or one of our leadership programs, Authenticity© or Elevate©, the number one fear for people is the fear of having tough conversations, otherwise known as holding somebody accountable. Let's explore how to increase accountability in your workplace, without blame and shame.  

Why is accountability so hard?  


Let's start with what accountability is. Self-accountability is owning our mistakes, apologising for them and making amends.


When I am holding somebody else accountable, I'm bringing to their attention, a mistake, or a responsibility that they haven't completed or performed, to allow them to take responsibility for it, to apologize if necessary, and to make amends to fix and own the issue.


It is not being nasty. It's not shaming and blaming somebody, instead, holding somebody accountable is bringing to their attention, something they may or may not know about themselves, something, they may or may not know, that has gone wrong. 

I'm a believer that as an employee, you have the right to receive feedback from your manager, you have the right to know whether you're doing a good job or a bad job, and you have the right to be held accountable. And as a leader, we have the right to hold people accountable. We have the right to have tough conversations at work. We don't however, have the right to shame and blame people.


There is a big difference between shaming and blaming, and accountability.  


A simple way of thinking about the difference between shame and blame and accountability is this: 


  • The motivation of shame and blame is to make the person feel bad or to feel 'guilty' (AKA shame) so that they change. Shame and blame target the person. It may stop a simple behaviour at the moment, but it rarely achieves sustainable positive change. However, the negative consequences of shame and blame may be felt for years.  
  • The motivation for accountability is about drawing attention to behaviour or action or activity or situation that has gone wrong to enable a better outcome in the future. It's not able the person, it's about the behaviour or action. 

When I hold you accountable for your actions or behaviour, then that's fixable. For example, I observe that you were late to three team meetings this month - this can be fixed by using a reminder app, or by increasing organisation.  

When I shame or blame you - i.e.: you are lazy or you are late to everything, you are so unreliable. This is harder to fix because now I've assigned a characteristic to your identity.  

And…if I'm saying this to you… how do you feel about me? 


I wonder if we are lacking accountability in workplaces, because actually what we're doing is shaming and blaming. When we shame and blame, we disconnect ourselves from other people. We make others feel bad and therefore we feel bad. I wouldn't want to do that either. 

Here's an example:


You've asked one of your team to produce a briefing paper on a change that's happening in your workplace. They put forward a briefing paper and when you read it, it doesn't have all of the information that you think it should have. It's missing some financial information. It looks like they haven't consulted with other teams either. You are frustrated because they have been in the team for a while and don't believe you should have to 'fix' their work.  

If you want to shame or blame them for doing that, then you may say something like: 


"This report is terrible. You are a senior professional so I shouldn't have to keep fixing your reports for you? I told you what to do and you ignored my instructions. What is it with you that makes it hard to understand what I'm saying? Are you just being lazy?" 


That's shaming and blaming because I'm making it purely about the person and I'm not adding anything helpful for them to learn from.  

If want to hold them accountable for a bad job, you could say something like,  


"I'd like to talk to you about the report you submitted to be about the change program. The report is missing data that is important for our business case. It's also missing the voice of other people. This report the way it is now won't allow us to have the impact that we need to have. I've noticed that the last two reports you have written haven't been up to the standard that I know you can produce. Can you talk me through your process to create this report? Let's talk about what you can do to make this report better to have the kind of impact that it needs to have. When can you get the updated report back to me?" 


That's accountability.  


When we are honest with people about the activities or behaviour that they've done well, and the activities or behaviour they haven't done well. The better outcomes we are going to get in workplaces.   

People are people, and mistakes are part of our human experience. Allowing people to amend their mistakes themselves means we get better results. The bonus is when we hold people accountable, we increase trust. We increase connection, and we increase relationships. When we shame and blame, or we ignore the situation completely, we erode trust, we erode our relationships, and we erode our culture.   

Holding people accountable is part of leadership. Ensuring that we aren't shaming and blaming is part of being human.   

Have a look at how you are holding people accountable:


- If you are avoiding the situation, you must examine why you are avoiding it (is it skill or attitude?), add whatever skill is missing, and start SAP.
- If you are shaming and blaming, please move your focus to the behaviour you want to be changed, and not on the person.
- If you're holding people accountable, give yourself a big pat on the back because it's not happening enough in workplaces across Australia and the world.


If you are interested in learning more about how to hold yourself and others accountable, and how to cultivate a culture where accountability is part of the DNA, then please give us a call at Synergy IQ. We'd love to have a discussion about accountability with you. 


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