Blaming, Accountability, or Empowerment: How to Bring out the Best in Others

Instead of being shamed for an error you made, you were supported in redressing the situation. How did it affect your sense of responsibility and ownership?

Jean Latting
Sparks Publication
10 min readMay 30, 2024

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It’s above my pay grade

Here’s a typical scenario: Someone makes a mistake. The manager is furious and starts asking the person how they could have made such a mistake.

The person’s peers stay silent, initially. Then one confesses they knew about the error.

The manager gets doubly furious, wondering how to get each person and the full team to take accountability for the work.

How many times have you heard this at your organization? “Well, no, I didn’t say anything because I did not want to look like I was blaming him. Besides, that the manager’s job, not mine.”

I’ve heard many variations on this sentence. People are reluctant to do anything that implies judging or blaming or snitching on one another, even when it might help their peers improve their performance. I’ve seen this reluctance even when one person has to pick up the slack for another, and even though all of them want to be seen as highly successful.

The manager’s fury doesn’t help. Those reporting to a manager who loses their temper are not likely to say anything that may make them the next target.

Part of the confusion is not distinguishing between blaming, accountability, and empowerment. You’re not likely to have teamwork and shared responsibility if you focus on blame.

Alexa is furious

Here is a composite case. Alexa is a senior account manager at an advertising agency. She is responsible for overseeing a team that develops campaigns for a major client. Sam, a junior member on Alexa’s team, is tasked with proofreading for a new print ad.

Despite multiple rounds of revisions, Sam misses a small typo in the final version of the ad that gets sent to the client. It’s a minor error, but the client notices it and immediately calls Alexa to complain.

Alexa is furious when she finds out about the typo. She calls Sam into her office, saying “I want to be crystal clear that this is unacceptable! I was so embarrassed talking to the client. How could you let this happen? I’m really afraid we could lose the client over this. Didn’t you check it before signing off?”

It’s no wonder Alexa turned to blame immediately; that’s the culture we live in. Media will ask when something goes wrong, “Who’s to blame? Who should be fired?” It takes conscious leadership to rise above a blaming orientation and choose a different path.

Take a minute to reflect on these questions before I explain further:

  • Was Sam at fault?
  • Was Alexa blaming Sam?
  • Was she holding him accountable?
  • What do you imagine was Alexa’s intent?
  • Is Sam likely to feel accountable after this conversation?

Now let’s add to the complexity.

Uncover system impediments

After talking it over with a colleague, Alexa realizes that the whole slip-up could not possibly rest on Sam’s shoulders alone. Sure, it was Sam’s responsibility to deliver an error-free document, but why weren’t there safeguards to catch any errors before it got to the client?

Upon further investigation, Alexa discovers several gaps in the agency’s review and approval process that contributed to this error:

  1. This particular client has a history of requesting last-minute changes, leaving the team rushed to meet tight deadlines. One team member said he was surprised they had gone this long without giving the client documents with errors.
  2. Several people said the agency’s project management software is outdated and prone to glitches, making it difficult for team members to effectively track revisions. They had requested updates, but these hadn’t been approved yet by the IT unit.
  3. Alexa’s department lacked clear proofreading protocols with no designated quality control checkpoint before final delivery. No one was responsible for checking Sam’s final work.

As Alexa became more aware of these process-related problems, her initial fury turned into a pit in her stomach. With a dull thud, she concluded she had jumped on Sam prematurely. The process gaps she had uncovered made it more likely for a minor error like the typo to slip through, despite Sam’s best efforts.

But wasn’t Sam responsible for his work? Alexa reasoned. She didn’t want to let him off the hook even though there were obvious problems in their process.

Some people confuse looking at systems factors with letting people off the hook. Think of criminal trials. Discussion about a person’s traumatic childhood are considered excuses.

But was it Sam alone who should have been “on the hook” in the first place? After all, he was a member of a team.

Peer reluctance to say anything

While investigating the systemic errors, Alexa learned that Sam worked closely with Ruben in producing the final product. She went to Ruben to get his take on what happened.

Ruben explained, “Well, I did notice the typo, but I put off saying anything because we were so rushed, and I had to make sure my part was complete. I figured Sam or someone else would catch it. And besides, I wasn’t sure if it was really my place to say something.”

“Your place?” Alexa asked incredulously.

“Well, yes. We all do our own work and trust each other to do theirs.”

“But you saw an error, so I don’t understand how trust enters the picture. Sam obviously didn’t see the error.” Alexa did the best she could to keep sarcasm out of her voice.

“Yes, I wondered what to do. I decided I would go back and check if the typo was still there, but I just didn’t have the time. It was a rush job because of the last-minute changes.”

Now Alexa was in a real quandary. Was Ruben also responsible? It was Sam’s job to get it right — he was the heavy lifter on this product — but how could Ruben see the error and just let it go? How could Ruben even think it wasn’t “his place” to say something to Sam when he was part of a team?

And as Alexa thought about it, there was no reason for Ruben to have raised concern about the typo unless he felt some responsibility for what the team produced, as well as motivated to deliver excellent service to the client. And if he thought that doing his own job was good enough, then he would not have considered going the extra mile.

The conversation with Ruben was disheartening. Alexa was now sure she had made a mistake by shifting all the blame onto Sam, while clearly other factors were at play. There were problems in the process, and Sam’s peers did not feel any extra motivation to make sure that their team produced an error-free product, nor did they assume accountability to one another. Where was the team?

She felt her body flood with embarrassment, thinking of how she had treated Sam. What should she do now? She had to figure out how to apologize to Sam, and for sure she didn’t want to turn around and dump on Ruben. Yet she wanted both to have a stronger sense of ownership of the final product than they had demonstrated.

To talk with them, she had to distinguish between blame and accountability, and to think more carefully how she might lead team members to assume responsibility for the whole, not just their individual products.

Definitions

Blame happens when we:

  • Assume someone is responsible for the negative situation, without considering external factors beyond their control.
  • Adopt a judgmental, critical attitude towards that person.
  • Fail to acknowledge the real challenges and obstacles that person may be facing.
  • Disempower the person by making them feel ashamed, helpless, or at fault.
  • Shift the focus away from finding solutions and towards criticizing the person’s actions or character.

Accountability happens when we:

  • Recognize that while people have some control over their circumstances, there are often external factors at play.
  • Adopt a compassionate, supportive attitude focused on helping the person identify their own strengths and resources.
  • Acknowledge the real difficulties someone is facing, without blaming them.
  • Encourage the person to take responsibility for what they can control, while also seeking support for what is beyond their control. Accountability requires distinguishing between excuses and acknowledging the reality of facts.

Let’s revisit what Alexa had to say to Sam when she found out about the error:

“I want to be crystal clear that this is unacceptable! I was so embarrassed talking to the client. How could you let this happen? I’m really afraid we could lose the client over this. Didn’t you check it before sending it off?”

The emphasized sentences are prime examples of a blaming approach. Alexa accused Sam of “letting this happen” and “not checking it before sending it off.”

As it turns out, Sam could not have intentionally “let it happen,” and indeed had checked it before sending it off.

But here they were, and the client was sent the document with the error.

Redress

What now? Alexa doesn’t want to let anyone off the hook, but she certainly does not want a repeat of the client’s drubbing.

She talks the situation over with a mentor who points out quality results stem from three factors:

  • Systems processes: Do the processes support production of a quality product?
  • Team accountability: Does each member of the team believe themselves to be accountable for results of the whole?
  • Individual ownership: Does each team member own their job and feel empowered to seek excellence?

As her mentor explained, imagine each of these factors going through a funnel, interacting with one another, and the outputs are quality results. If you have each of these elements in good shape, quality results are inevitable.

Crucially, Alexa herself as manager is ultimately responsible for:

  • setting up system processes that makes it easy to produce quality results
  • forming teams who feel accountable for the whole and not just for their part. The leader can’t do it all alone
  • developing individuals in the team who feel empowered to own their work and have the capacity to produce excellence in their work products

Berating Sam obscured her own responsibility for developing a team that was functioning as she thought it should. It’s now her responsibility to get her house in order.

This was sobering news for Alexa. Much easier to blame team members than reflect on her setbacks as a leader.

Newly committed to becoming an outstanding leader of a superlative team, she formed five action steps:

  1. Clean up her act with Sam and let him know that her initial reflexive response had been inappropriate. This entails apologizing and asking how can she support him to produce error-free work.
  2. Encourage both Sam and Ruben to acknowledge their accountability for the breakdown.
  3. Make it clear to Sam and Ruben that they are accountable for one another’s — and the whole team’s — work, not just their own.
  4. Empower Sam to correct the problem by sending an updated document to the client with an appropriate apology.
  5. Get the system process gaps corrected so that a similar error won’t slip through again.

Note the words blaming, accountability, and empower in the list above. These three terms are often confused because in all three instances, the focus is on the person who made the mistake.

As defined above, blaming ignores situational or process concerns and focuses solely on someone’s malfeasance. When we blame others, we may hope that they will assume accountability.

What is more likely to happen? The person is likely to feel demotivated and disempowered, not accountable, much less empowered.

Accountability assumes there can be more than one cause. When we focus on accountability, the goal is for the person to acknowledge their contribution to what happened and to take responsibility for it. Then and only then will they feel motivated and empowered to prevent such problems in the future.

Alexa proceeded to implement her game plan:

  • She started by discussing the incident with Sam and was dismayed to learn he did indeed feel disempowered and demotivated. He had thought the hit from Alexa had been unfair because he had tried as hard as he knew how. The relief on his face as she apologized was palpable.

Alexa explained to Sam what she had found out about the gaps in the systems processes and how she intended to get them handled.

She then asked him what he might do differently in the future.

  • Once Sam learned that Alexa didn’t think the error was entirely his fault, he offered to work with a team member to double check each other’s work. In short, he was willing to take responsibility for his part.
  • He was also willing to initiate an apology to the client, explaining how they would work to prevent such errors in the future.
  • Next, Alexa had a similar conversation with Ruben, asking him how he might handle the situation in the future if he knew there was even a possibility the client would get a document with an error.

Ruben visibly blanched when he understood his role in the breakdown. He then volunteered to approach teammates in the future.

But, to make it easier, he asked Alexa, “would you tell the whole team this so they won’t think I’m messing in their business?”

She agreed and he agreed to assume his share of the responsibility for the team’s work.

  • The third step was for Alexa to address the system processes. She asked Sam and Ruben to form a two-person team to plan how to prevent such errors in the future and bring her their findings. They both agreed.
  • As a final step, Alexa held a team meeting, reviewing the whole incident, her initial inappropriate response and subsequent apology, and how inspired she felt for how well things turned out.

As she explained, “Even though I would have preferred for this breakdown not to have happened, I think we are better off for moving forward in the future. We will have new processes, and everyone understands you are each responsible for the final product, not just your own job.”

Takeaways

What were Alexa’s takeaways?

She now more clearly understood that blaming focuses on what should have been done differently, accountability focuses on one’s piece of responsibility for what happened, and empowerment focuses on what the person can do moving forward. The first is destructive while the second and third are constructive.

As a manager, it is her responsibility to instill a sense of empowerment in the whole team, helping each person to recognize their own agency, ability to learn from mistakes, and willingness to seek out positive changes, even in the face of adversity.

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Jean Latting
Sparks Publication

President, Leading Consciously| Diversity and Inclusion Consulting |Leadership Consulting| Online course: Pathfinders: Leadership for Racial and Social Justice