The Two Faces of Accountability


When things go wrong there is a simple solution. Politicians do it, journalists do it, managers do it and even my children do it.   When things go wrong we search for somebody to blame “hold accountable”.  It’s in our nature.

Fortunately it is more nuanced than that. There are two ways we can hold others accountable:

Backward-looking accountability

Backward-looking accountability asks who is at fault? It searches through the facts to find out who caused the issue.  Then it allocates an appropriate punishment.  At its best, backward-looking accountability is fair and impartial.  It uses evidence to apportion blame.

Backward-looking accountability punishes the guilty to prevent reoccurrence.

Forward-looking accountability

Forward-looking accountability asks who will fix it? Like backward-looking accountability it searches through the facts, but focuses on “what happened?” not “who caused it?”  Then it finds somebody to make sure that plans and actions are put in place to resolve the problem.

Forward-looking accountability builds solutions that prevent reoccurrence.

Which type of accountability is the best type of accountability?

Well it all depends…

Looking backward:

Judges are tasked with backward-looking accountability.  A just legal system is an invaluable thing.  If people weren’t punished for wrong doing then society would quickly fall apart.

But “who is to blame?” and “who can I blame?” are two very different questions. If we use backward-looking accountability to find scape goats then people will run for cover. They will keep their mouths shut and hide their mistakes.  If there aren’t any mistakes then there can’t be any learning.

Looking forward:

Airline crash investigators are far more interested in forward-looking accountability. Understanding what caused a crash and stopping it from happening again is far more valuable to society than laying the blame.  Forward-looking accountability is synonymous with learning.  It needs people to be open and honest about issues.

But too much forward-looking accountability results in frustration and unrest if “the guilty” walk free.

What should the balance be?

I once worked for a man who professed to love the word accountability.  He was at his most energised when something went wrong and he could apportion accountability for the issue.

Would you like to work for this man?

I suspect that your gut reaction to that question tells you all you need to know about the balance of accountability in your own organisation.

If you enjoyed this post click here to receive the next

Read another opinion

Image by Arvid Rudling


  1. Simon Tasker says:

    Interesting article James. I see evidence of accountability becoming confused with responsibility, with people less comfortable adopting the former. Successful outcomes always seem to get more people wanting a slice of the action, rather than when it goes wrong…..

  2. Martin Andrew says:

    An interesting take on root cause analysis and preventive action. Thanks for more good thoughts

  3. Anish Hindocha says:

    Terrific article James. Am currently reading ‘Black Box Thinking’ by Matthew Syed. His straight talking book gets into this subject brilliantly.

  4. I see some fundamental flaws here.

    Forward or backward are both useful in creating sustainable solutions but the focus on who, rather than what, generates fingerpointing in either cases.

    Forward thinking without backward thinking will tend to generate superficial solutions.

    To summarise, the direction of viewpoint is far less important compared to what you look at.

Speak Your Mind