I very often heard in many work experiences in my career the popular motto “we don’t have a blame culture in here”. I wouldn’t expect any company advertises they have a blame culture, it would be just really bad advertisement.

Many of these same companies also claim they have a culture of accountability and meritocracy.

Is it contradictory to say you are accountable if you’re never to blame?

Read on to see a clarification on these concepts.

It’s very common to find companies who claim at the same time that they have both an accountability culture and a culture of no blame, I wonder whether it’s just because negating any of the affirmations would sound like bad advertisement, and no one would intentionally do that.

A very common mental model is also that “the team is responsible for the tasks, but the manager is ultimately accountable for anything the team does”.

I wonder people to hear or even say these things actually understand the concept very well. Let’s dive deeper on what these things really mean, and from that it should be easier to discuss the different.

What is really accountability?

Accountability is dealing with the consequences of. You’re accountable for a decision or for a task execution if you’re the one who deals with the consequences of such decision or task. Responsibility is actually executing the task or making the decision.

If someone else made a decision, but you are the one who has to deal with the consequences, you’re accountable and that someone is responsible.

The same way, if you executed a task, but someone else dealt with the consequences, you were responsible, but that someone else was accountable for the execution.

Sounds simple, uh? Let’s see.

What accountability is not?

The first myth we must clarify is “the manager is always ultimately accountable for anything the team does”. At a first moment, you can make such statement and think it’s the same thing - but that’s not always true!

You’re paid to do a job. You receive your salary and someone else needs the job done. For example, imagine you hire someone to change the floor of your house - you’re paying that person to execute a job, so that person will be responsible to do it, but you will be accountable for a job badly done.

But what if you come to the person you hired, after agreeing a price for the job done, and tell him or her how the floor should be put? “First, do the corners, then the middle”. You’re accountable for a floor not put correctly, but your decision caused the person you hired to have to work the double for the same price. At this point, that person is being accountable for your decision -> you’re responsible for making a decision and the person will suffer consequences of a bad decision.

A more real analogy is a software team where people might have to do extra hours to maintain things working. If you have to maintain a software running and you have to wake up during the night to fix it, you’re being accountable for the decisions made when that software was built.

What blame really means?

When you’re accountable for something and other person was responsible for it, it’s human to tend to blame the responsible person for something you’re having to deal the consequences of.

But what is to blame? To blame is to accuse, to apply a penalty, if people responsible for something don’t do it right. When you blame, you’re somehow forcing the responsible people to have consequences for their acts.

And why is it a bad idea? Why no body likes to work on a company that blames? Here are some reasons:

  • It’s human to make mistakes, we can’t be expected to be right 100% of the time and never fail
  • Many times the responsibility is shared. You got the task, but you couldn’t do it because of other dependencies that have nothing to do with the task. Very often there are legitimate reasons why the failure happened.
  • The failure could be consequence of taking risks - any project has risks and blaming people every time a risk becomes concrete will only make things worse.
  • Blame can be very toxic on a workplace and make people not enjoy their job

So that’s why we don’t want to blame people in the work place - it’s better to focus on fixing things and learning from our mistakes, than to focus on the negativity of blaming, which will only create disengagement from the team. Very often, the solution is a new mechanism or a new form of organization.

What blame is not?

Blame is not stating that people made mistakes, or that a decision was bad.

I often see people confusing lack of blame with lack of accountability - so let’s make something clear - you might not be blamed by a mistake of yours, but if you made the mistake and the decision was yours, you’re still responsible for it.

If you were trying to solve a support issue and you deleted the customer from the database, you would be blamed if you were fired because of it, or if you were suffering any kind of penalty because of your action. Not being blamed means it’s ok to make mistakes and you can do it without being afraid of these penalties, BUT… You’re still responsible for the mistake.

And why is it important to acknowledge a mistake or a failure some times? Because otherwise, it’s impossible to learn from it and very likely, “not being a culture of blame” can be used over and over as an excuse to make mistakes.

Characteristics of a toxic blame culture

Funny enough, I often see environments where people frequently claim “not being a culture of blame” to be the ones with the strongest culture of blame, because many times it’s used as an excuse to avoid accountability.

In a toxic environment, responsibilities are loosely defined and it’s unclear who is hold accountable for what. This is the perfect environment for making decisions or mistakes and hold other people as accountable for the mistakes you make! Even when people don’t blame each other directly, if there is no clear boundary line showing when the responsibility of one ends and the responsibility of the other begins, it’s very easy to hold people accountable for mistakes made by others.

It’s not a direct accusation as per say, but when people are not correctly hold accountable for what they do, things don’t work and at some point there are consequences. This consequences can come in the form of bad evaluations, not acknowledging good results - it’s the kind of environment where you’re there to be hold accountable in failure situations and in success situations it’s someone else’s success.

That’s what you should pay attention on when you analyse the company culture - everyone will say they are not a blame culture - but are responsibilities well defined in the place you are?

  • Are you waking up in the middle of the night to fix problems you never generated and you have no control over?
  • When you join a tiger team to solve a problem, do you usually feel you’re under performing when you’re actually going beyond your boundaries to help others to solve a problem?
  • When someone makes a team decision that didn’t work, is it spoken as your failure?

Pragmatic summary

Although blame can make a culture toxic, unclear boundaries and lack of accountability can make it as toxic or even more.

A good work environment has clear responsibility boundaries

From my experience, environments where there is no clear division of responsibilities are closer to a culture of slavery, where some people can benefit over the property of others - the product of their life and their freedom. Free people should own the results they produce. It’s great not to blame people who try and make mistakes, but to be blind to who was accountable for which result is immoral to say the least, and I would say very toxic.

If you want to know what kind of culture a team has, one of the first things to ask is how the responsibilities are split - If boundaries are not clear, this is a really bad sign.

  • Choose environments to work where the culture is not a culture of blame,


  • Choose environments with a culture of accountability, where you will be hold accountable for what’s in your control.

Bear in mind that doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself on doing just on what you’re responsible for - very often you will go beyond your responsibility boundaries for the good of a delivery or the product - but this should be seen as what it is - you doing more than your responsibility, as opposed to feel you’re doing less if you don’t fix everything.

A good work environment has accountability close to responsibility

I think this is the right definition of a meritocratic environment - an environment where you’re seen according to what you have control over.

Spiderman rule: “with great power it comes great responsibility” - ideally, you should be hold accountable for things you’re responsible for.

If you are a manager and your team will have to get the burden of support operations when software is badly written, then don’t make such decisions, delegate them to the people who are being accountable - the more they are there when it’s needed, the more they should have the right to participate in design decisions.

Managers can actually use this to support their delegation decisions on anything - before you decide who to delegate or whether to delegate, ask yourself - who has the burden when things go wrong on this?

When you have part of the team designing and creating the software and the other part fixing their bugs - this is a really bad sign. You build it, you own it - be accountable for the decisions you make.


Hopefully this article made you think. I don’t expect people to always agree with me, but my intention with articles like this is going beyond the surface, diving deeper on company cultures and why things are the way they are.