This article was published on May 19, 2021

Stop playing hot potato! Why the blame game is hurting your business

Accountability makes employees better at their jobs

Stop playing hot potato! Why the blame game is hurting your business
Yessi Bello Perez
Story by

Yessi Bello Perez


Yessi leads editorial content at UNLEASH, a media platform covering HR technology and the future of work. Before that, she was Senior Writer Yessi leads editorial content at UNLEASH, a media platform covering HR technology and the future of work. Before that, she was Senior Writer at Growth Quarters.

How many times have you been summoned into a client escalation meeting only to find out that no one on the team was willing to take accountability for their mistake? 

It doesn’t take much to figure out why employees may be reluctant to take the blame for a mistake that could potentially cost the business a client and kill revenue streams — but if your team is playing hot potato, you may have a bigger (culture!) problem on your hands. 

“I’ve seen so many managers being scared of accountability because it’s always seen as a negative message, when it shouldn’t be. It’s a valuable part of our learning,” Gethin Nadin, a psychologist and HR author, says.

Indeed, employees need to know when they go wrong — but they also need to understand the consequences of their mistakes. “It’s about getting our people to own their work,” Nadin adds. 

Defining accountability in the future of work

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a seismic shift in how employers and employees think about work. As a result, HR departments everywhere are grappling to ensure their organizations are well equipped to deal with the future of work — where workers are more empowered and driven by the notion of purpose and belonging.

But this responsibility transcends the people department, seeping into every team leader, and even, the C-suite.

[Read more: 4 ways to deal with shitty colleagues when working remotely]

Employees have proved they can be trusted to work outside the confines of the office — and with this comes a heightened sense of responsibility: the realization that work is not just something we do; it’s something that’s meaningful. Now, founders, department heads, and team leads have to ensure individuals are empowered to thrive.

“Accountability is about development. It’s a way to get employees to own and value their work. When done right, accountability makes employees better at their jobs,” Nadin notes. 

That’s right — being accountable is also about respect for oneself and one’s colleagues. It’s about confidence in one’s ability to execute and the ability, and capability, of seeing a task through to completion. If you’re accountable, it means you care. Accountability has, Nadin adds, a huge part to play in community wellbeing, social capital, and psychological safety. 

A culture of accountability breeds trust between teams. If you set clear lines of responsibility and accountability, you’re essentially letting individuals know they are trusted to do their work. It’s not about hierarchy or micromanaging, it’s about clarity, transparency, and empowering people to do their best work at all times. 

The dangers in the hybrid working role

Those leaders who fail to realize this are setting themselves, their business, and their people up for failure. 

“The lack of accountability can cause huge damage to teams. Without it, employees don’t trust or collaborate with each other,” Nadin notes.

[Read more: Micromanaging sucks — especially when it’s about your ‘Zoom shoes’]

Being accountable for one’s work has never been more important. With a large chunk of the global workforce working from home, it’s important that trust and communication is at the center of every team.

We’re in uncharted waters. You may have newbies on your team who’ve been onboarded remotely, stripped of the opportunity of meeting colleagues in-person and the countless bonding opportunities available in the offline world. 

Many organizations have endured grueling re-structures and pivots — people may understandably feel anxious, nervous, or intimidated by newcomers. Put yourself in their shoes: imagine what it’s really like to enter a virtual workplace where you know no one and find yourself working with complete strangers who don’t know you and don’t trust you. 

Then, take all those issues and add client deadlines and expectations into the mix. If your designer, developer, and editor don’t know what they are accountable for and your account manager doesn’t have visibility over each of their tasks and responsibilities, you’re going to end up with a very angry client.

Worse still, all those internal stakeholders will enter into an endless game of hot potato — claiming the process fell down due to a range of issues, while also failing to take accountability and responsibility for the part they played in the breakdown.

If you don’t have a culture of accountability, where transparency, clarity, and communication reign, you’re inevitably hindering cross-team collaboration. You’ll lose talent, customers, revenue — and the respect of your employees.

Eradicating toxicity from teams 

These cultural issues can have long-standing effects on your workforce’s wellbeing and performance. 

“Toxic workplaces cause psychological and physical stress. Stressed people don’t perform as well. They make mistakes, they forget things, they are reactive, and this can create unnecessary conflict,” Olivia James, a London-based performance and confidence coach, tells me.

“A lack of psychological safety is bad news for mental health and if the office climate means workers feel they can’t point out mistakes and problems, they persist unchecked and this is bad for the bottom line,” she adds. 

These toxic behaviors are all too common — but what some organizations fail to realize is the actual cost of a toxic work environment, not just on talent, but in terms of dollars. After all, employee attrition can cost a company up to 33% of its employee compensation package. 

How to do better

So, what can you — the leader — do better? 

James says it’s important for leaders to show their vulnerability. “You don’t have to let it all hang out but show it’s OK to have feelings, change your mind, and admit mistakes,” she adds. 

There is a fine line here — being ‘vulnerable’ and ‘authentic’ is very fashionable but we want our leaders to show us they can shoulder the responsibility.

As a leader, you need to communicate that there is psychological safety. If there is a problem, you need to solve it — even if it makes you look bad in the short-term. 

Don’t become the next Carillion or Enron, both notorious for their systemic problems with lack of accountability and poor governance. 

Be proactive, pre-empt your organization’s needs, be clear on responsibilities, allow people to fail, foster entrepreneurship across every team, and more importantly, let people know they’re all part of one big team. Remember: the future of work is all about humans. 

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