Bridge Insights

Leaders Who Understand the Difference between These Four Words Can Successfully Foster Complex Change

May 5, 2021

From managing projects to managing personalities, team leaders are constantly spinning plates. While good leaders may try to stop the plates from falling, great leaders know it’s only a matter of time before a plate (or ten) will fall. They also know having the correct tools to pick up those plates is arguably more important than trying to stop the inevitable.

And the best tool to do this? Emotional Intelligence.

Research has repeatedly shown that a high EQ is one of the best indicators of a professional who will affect positive change, increase team productivity, and influence company culture for the better. For leaders, managing conflict falls clearly under this purview.

Although there is no right way to coach your team through conflict or build a PIP for a team member who is falling short, there is certainly a wrong way to do it. Savvy leaders know four words tend to crop up in the face of conflict regularly: FaultBlameResponsibility, and Accountability.

What transforms a good leader into a great one is the ability to understand the differences between these four words and use their EQ to transform a moment of corporate conflict into an opportunity to coach their team towards success.
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In the most general terms, fault can be described as the “why” behind an event. If your dog chews up your new furniture, any combination of factors could have played into why this happened: under-stimulation, overstimulation, environmental changes, physical illness, lack-luster training…the list goes on. And, ultimately, that list doesn’t matter.

Yes, when something doesn’t go as planned, it can seem like a valuable use of time to play detective and find all the little things that went wrong. However, finding fault does nothing to resolve the situation at hand, and it doesn’t prevent similar situations from happening in the future.

In the context of the corporate world, determining where a process breakdown occurred can help responsible parties build the most effective action plan. But in doing so, it’s important to remember fault is found in processes, not people.


Bottom Line: Blame has no place in team leadership. If you find yourself blaming, BREAK. THAT. HABIT. NOW.

Where fault is unproductive, blame is counterproductive. If the goal of a teachable moment is to build up your team’s productivity and cultivate well-rounded professionals, blaming runs in direct conflict with this. Blame only serves to tear down team confidence, breed resentment, and erode your authority–making you a less effective leader.

Going back to our chewed-up sofa, you may blame your dog. You may even blame yourself. Now what? You may feel a little bit of relief. You may even feel some resentment towards the “person to blame”, but guess what?
Your sofa is still shredded.

Blame is a distraction. It’s a self-serving way to distance yourself from responsibility or control over a situation. Even if you don’t see the harm in assigning blame, so long as it’s not communicated outwardly to your team, buying into that (toxic) dogma will subtly and slowly poison the efficacy of your management style. Over time, this mentality sends a larger message to your employees that you’re not invested in their success or interested in helping them achieve better job performance; your objective is to CYA.

And if you’re not invested in the success of your team members, how can you expect them to be invested in the success of your team?

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Unlike fault and blame –where the goal is to put distance between yourself and an adverse situation– responsibility is about buying into the idea that, yes, you can influence the outcome of a conflict. Responsibility is about looking forward and taking actionable steps towards a resolution.

In the workplace, if a process breakdown involved one of your team members, as team leader, you are going to be, at minimum, partially responsible for picking up the pieces of that breakdown and putting them back into the workflow.

Responsibility is about taking ownership and embracing that we have the power to influence our processes and cultivate success among those we lead.

A one-on-one coaching conversation where you work with your employee to build an actionable resolution plan is an act of ownership. It demonstrates you are invested not only in the success of your company processes but in their professional success as well.


Much like blame and fault, responsibility and accountability are words that are commonly confused with one another. Knowing the differences between them, however, is what sets apart exceptional leaders from great ones.

Where responsibility looks to the immediate future, accountability looks to tomorrow. Thinking back to our sofa, a responsible pet owner may replace their couch, where an accountable owner will take steps to ensure the situation cannot occur in the future.

If responsibility is about resolution, accountability is about prevention. Asking to be held accountable is one of the highest acts of empathy you take in the corporate world. Though you, as a team leader, may not be the one providing support to customers or fixing the process breakdown, your team’s performance is a direct reflection of how successful your leadership plan is.

Communicating your role and taking ownership of your employees’ professional development sends the message to your team that their performance impacts you as much as it impacts them. As a consequence, your teachable moment turns into our professional growth journey.

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Leading by Feel

When conflict arises, it’s important to understand fault, responsibility, and accountability will be interconnected.

If you’re unsure if you’re leading from a place of accountability, ask if your strategy is future-focused. Chances are if you find you’re coaching with tomorrow in mind, you’re leading from a place that will foster healthy, long-term growth for your team.

Remember, process post-mortems are the only reason you should be looking back, and this can be done long after the situation is resolved.

Leading with accountability is about looking forward, helping your employees build their professional skill set, and strengthening team productivity. When you become fully invested in the process of accountable conflict management, you may find while you’re helping your team become stronger professionals, they, in turn, are helping you become a better leader.