Responsibility and accountability
We often use the terms responsibility and accountability interchangeably, but for the purpose of this article we use accountability to infer you are accountable to someone e.g. report to ‘XYZ’ manager, as listed in your position description, and you are responsible for a series of activities or areas of the business.
According to well known safety author Sidney Dekker, we usually mean accountability when we refer to accountability and responsibility (per his book Just Culture – Balancing Safety and Accountability, Ashgate 2012). Therefore the mantra below will help you remember which is which.
No blame means no blame
The title ‘no blame’ suggests just that, and if this concept is officially pronounced by the organisation we should understand the confusion and scepticism of workers if operational managers later counsel or discipline workers after a ‘no blame’ investigation is completed.
Claiming you have a ‘no blame' culture and encouraging staff to be open and transparent with incident investigators, who then collect incriminating evidence, and later using the information gained against individuals can be very damaging to the culture of the business, as many would view this approach as a breach of their trust.
In these circumstances workers will be less willing to disclose and report in the future.
On the other hand most people will agree that it is reasonable to expect workers to conduct themselves in a way which does not carelessly or deliberately put others at risk, particularly when the organisation has provided policies, procedures and training on the subject.
In other words, we do support a culture of accountability and responsibility. So – how can we marry the two concepts together?
Possibly a better term to use, other than ‘no blame’, is a ‘just culture’.
We are culturally conditioned to be more critical of human behaviour than defective conditions or complex management systems.
Think of the last time you saw a news headline like ‘Worker falls asleep at the wheel and crashes car’ or ‘Truck fails to stop at railway crossing with signals operating’.
Most people’s mind is immediately drawn to the perceived driver’s poor behaviour and not the design or maintenance of the traffic system, work fatigue, task conflict, poor signage or lighting, or other factors beyond the driver’s control.
The Just World hypothesis
Famous safety author James Reason, in his book The Human Contribution (Ashgate, 2008), explains that many adults, and most children, have a simple ‘values system’ for understanding what happens in the world, and believe bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to the worthy.
However, as we know in the real world chance and unforeseeable factors sometimes cause good plans to fail and poor plans to appear to be successful. So don’t confuse this mindset with a just culture.
Definition of Just Culture
Now we understand the difference between accountability and responsibility, and the dangers of incorrectly applying a ‘no blame’ culture we can now turn our mind to what is a just culture and how to implement it in your organisation.
We suggest that a ‘just culture’ can be identified by application of the following principles:
- No matter what happens we will always start with the presumption that our people have acted in good faith and treat all individuals with respect
- When incidents occur we will consider all the contributory factors, not just the immediate actions of those closest to the event
- We will use every incident as an opportunity to improve our systems
- We will strive to ensure all our procedures and instructions are clear and practical
- We will train everyone to do their job well, and provide more training if requested or found necessary
- We will continually strive to build an atmosphere of trust in which people feel comfortable and are encouraged to provide important safety-related information
- We expect everyone to behave appropriately, per their training, for the circumstances
- We will not ask you to trust us. We will demonstrate this through the equity of our decisions
Our Just Culture
Implementing a Just Culture in your organisation
any organisations believe, or more likely simply hope, that applying a simple formula will deliver a just culture such as judging the difference between:
The following tips will help build the trust and fairness required for a just culture
Whilst far from perfect, the principles and tips above for a just culture will, if properly implemented, go some way to minimising allegations that the business treats individuals unfairly or inconsistently, while at the same time allowing you to hold individuals accountable for deliberate preventable breaches or reckless behaviour.
Finally, remember:a ‘just culture’ balances safety and accountability.