July 30, 2020 6 min read

HINT: It's not an either/or question


I'm often asked the question "how do you balance trust with accountability?". My answer is "it's actually not an either/or question". It is possible to develop a cultural environment which facilitates both trust AND accountability at the same time. Before I get into the how and why, I'm going to take a few steps back and talk a little bit about human nature.

People will always be people

  1. People generally don't wake up in the morning and think to themselves, "I am going to make a huge mistake at work today and make life miserable for myself and everyone around me."
  2. Despite this, people are fallible. It's human nature so none of us can escape this fact. It is how we learn. Workers are no different. Therefore accidents, incidents and mistakes are inevitable - you can't avoid them (but you can put systems in place that allow people to fail safely).
  3. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Hertzberg’s Two Factor Theory tells us safety is a basic lower order human requirement (in other words its something we need rather than want).
  4. Behaviour, including unsafe behaviour, is only ever a symptom, it is never the underlying cause. When we behave in a certain way, it is in response to our environmental influences, whether they be at work or some other place.

We all want to do well at work

Work makes up a huge proportion of our lives so it makes sense we want to do our jobs well and enjoy being at work too. When workers make mistakes or behave unsafely, it's because of a fraction of a second distraction, ignorance, fatigue, stress, or a whole host of other reasons. However, it's extremely rare that a worker makes a mistake because that's what they intended to do (if your workers are making deliberate mistakes it's a big red flag that you need to be doing something to turn your culture around and fast).

Accountability, Punishment, and Justice

Most of us have grown up in an environment where, if you do something bad or "naughty", you were told you need to be held accountable for it and punished. We've been led to believe this is how Justice is served and it's how a wrong doing gets righted. Sadly, somewhere along the line, people associated punishment with justice.

What is the motivation behind the question?


Let's come back to the original question for a moment - "how to balance trust and accountability". When most people ask me this question, what they are really asking me is, when someone makes a mistake, how do we punish them and still maintain trust within our organisation. The simple answer to that is, you can't. But that doesn't mean trust and accountability are mutually exclusive. What it means is the wrong question is being asked. The real question they should be asking is "how can we become a learning organisation?"

Accountability is the key to creating safer workplaces, just not in the way you've been lead to believe

This sort of Justice, where an individual is held accountable and then punished is what is known as Retributive Justice. We think that so long as someone gets punished, balance has been restored. A major problem with punishment (and therefore Retributive Justice) in workplace situations is that it is rarely applied in a manner that makes it effective (for punishment to be effective, it has to be applied as soon as the error has occurred i.e. instantly). This is why the effectiveness of speed cameras is questionable at best - by the time you receive your fine you can't remember where you were, or what you were doing and therefore it is difficult to form an association between the "offence" (speeding) and the outcome (the fine). It is the same when someone is punished at work - a mistake happens, an investigation takes place, and it can be days, weeks or even months before punishment is applied. By the time the punishment is dished out, the worker's colleagues might have even made the same mistake a dozen times over, they've just been a bit "luckier" that no one got hurt, or property didn't get damaged and therefore their error goes unnoticed.

It's rarely black and white

Another major problem with retributive justice is accidents, incidents, mistakes (what ever terminology you want to use), are rarely a black and white cause and effect scenario. Usually there are multiple contributing factors that have lead up to the problem and a person's error is simply the last link in what can some times be a very long chain. To place blame and hold a single individual accountable is little more than scapegoating and will do little to embed trust within an organisation.

Retributive Justice

Retributive Justice programs are generally implemented because that is what most of us know, recognise and understand. The problem is, retributive justice programs are designed to elicit compliance through fear. Fear creates distrust, distrust generates blame, and people seek to save themselves. While accountability might be seen to be applied extrinsically, intrinsic accountability is lacking because people are worried about what the outcome will mean for themselves and their families. Despite the intent of this type of program (to stop mistakes from happening again), it actually promotes the types of behaviours most organisations want to eliminate, it hinders learning, focuses on the short term and the past, and creates an us versus them culture.

When you implement a retributive justice system you set up a system which ensures no-one wins, not the worker who made the mistake, not their colleagues, and certainly not the organisation and the end result is people actively attempt to escape accountability by covering up problems. In fact, due to the opportunity costs created by this sort of program, it is almost always the organisation itself which ends up the biggest loser when this type of justice system is applied. With retributive justice being so ineffective, is there an effective alternative?

What's the alternative?

The answer is "yes, absolutely". It's called Restorative Justice (also known as also known as "just culture" and "zero blame culture") and it's virtually the opposite of retributive justice. If your organisation wants to remain competitive in ever increasing competitive environments, it is something you at want to least consider. It is So what is Restorative Justice?

Restorative Justice

Restorative Justice is all about understanding what went wrong when mistakes happen (notice it says "what went wrong" not "who make a mistake") so that interventions can be implemented to either prevent the issue from re-occurring or reduce its impact if it does re-occur. Apart from the ability to create a constantly improving organisation, restorative justice has additional benefits relating to facilitating collaborative workplaces, a focus on the future rather than on the past, and most importantly, creating a self-enforcing trust and accountability structure where workers actively work together (as opposed to against each other) to keep themselves and each other accountable because they are focused on helping each other rather than saving their own skin. Because the focus is on helping each other, trust is a key by-product. In restorative justice, punishment is taken out of the equation. Restorative justice recognises that incidents, accidents and mistakes are more complex than finding a single individual wrong. Instead it seeks to get to the root causes of the problem (usually system and design issues) and rectify those instead. It recognises that people are designed to fail - it's how we learn, therefore we all fail regularly, whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not.

Everyone wins

The end result of implementing restorative justice is, everyone wins. The individual wins because they aren't being made the scapegoat and instead can provide a valuable insights into discovering what really went wrong, the team wins because the organisation has the ability to operate proactively and therefore identify and fix problems before they become a major issue and the organisation wins because innovation is a by-product of the collaborative working environment that has been created. Organisations who implement restorative justice recognise the question to ask isn't "how do we balance trust against accountability?", it's "how do we become a better learning organisation"? Changing a major cultural component like this in an organisation takes time, planning, and commitment but ask any organisation who has gone to the effort to make the change and they'll all tell you it was worth it. How can it not be!!
Barb Hutchinson
Barb Hutchinson

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