In Praise of Accountability

I’ve been thinking about personal accountability lately. Or, more accurately, the lack of it.

accountability
Accountability? Not anonymously

One of the most enjoyable duties I have at work is leading a team that produces our quarterly newsletter. The best part is that it focuses on life outside the workplace – outside the “cubicle,” so to speak. Co-workers can share news and proud moments – from births and marriages to graduations and accomplishments – in our “Applause!” section. The rest focuses on a variety of topics, ranging from someone’s intriguing hobby to group-based stories. Early in the year, we included a story about making changes. Specifically, we asked what one thing they’d do this year that would make the most difference in their lives. (Bear with me. This DOES have a point.)

So, when we do stories like this, we send an global email to all 600+ employees encouraging them to participate in this topic as well as alerting them to send items for “Applause!” Bottom line: everyone has an equal opportunity to participate because everyone gets that email.

Have you noticed how loudly crickets can punctuate absolute silence?
That’s all we got. Well, OK. We got tidbits for Applause, but for the big Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes story? Nothing.

Now, normally, we’d just fold up the story and think, “nice try.” But for some reason, we decided to take a different tack: putting the same question to the people who lead the rest of us – our managers. If employees see them speaking out, it will set up some great dialogue and send a good message. And maybe, if management participates, then the average joe might also participate.
It worked, too. I got comments from supervisors. Then surprisingly, I got a few from employees in one branch whose supervisor had mentioned my second email to them. They all decided to chime in, too.

Woo Hoo, I thought. How wonderful! How unexpected! We published the story with input from managers and scattered employees from that branch.
It stayed wonderful for about a week, which was when I came to work and found an interoffice pink envelope with the page from our newsletter copied, the names of the non-managerial employees highlighted in yellow, and a typed label splatted right across it all that read: “Why are the employees featured here all from one branch? You might want to consider making it more fair next time. Just a suggestion!”

It was unsigned.

ARGHH!  It’s so frustrating to receive an anonymous comment, especially one that’s a little mean-spirited and certainly not completely accurate, with no one to approach to clear up any misperceptions. It tips off a plethora of feelings: indignant, attacked, wronged, helpless, angry, annoyed –I ran through all of ’em – but in the end it turned mostly to resignation and sadness. Sad because there’s not much I can do about it. My kneejerk reaction to pick up the phone and talk face to face was impossible. My second thought – to respond in the next newsletter – ultimately seemed petty and almost like the kid in me was saying, “Nyah! Nyah! Nyah!” Besides, I thought it would look as though I were trying to get the last word and prove I’m right and they’re wrong. Whatever. Maybe I am, a little.

And that’s how I got on my personal accountability soapbox. (See, there IS a point.) What I’ve decided is this:

It’s so easy to hide behind anonymity. I can inflict pain, embarrassment, or possibly irritation without any fear of being caught or questioned. Or being correct. I don’t need to think about how my actions and words affect you because I’ll never have to pay for it … unless I gloat, of course, but that’s a whole other issue.

If you take the time to really look at the lack of personal accountability, you’ll find it’s a much deeper problem. In fact, I worry we’re becoming a society that is increasingly unwilling to accept responsibility for our actions, for our emotions, for our words, for just about anything.

In her blog “Ordinary Courage,” author/researcher Brene Brown writes, “In a culture that tells us that being imperfect is synonymous with being inadequate, and that being vulnerable is being weak, it is so much easier to criticize than it is to contribute.”

Wow. There it is, in a nutshell. We’re often not brave enough to appear imperfect or to be vulnerable enough to attach our name or face with our words and our actions. We search for things or people or institutions to blame – anyone or anything but us. We rely on our cloak of invisibility to protect us because, ultimately I think, we’re afraid of appearing stupid or vulnerable or weak – in other words, imperfect.

We sue because a coffee from a fast-food restaurant was “hot” (isn’t it supposed to be?) and we set it precariously in our laps as we we drive away and it spills. Never mind that WE were responsible for placing it in our laps and then driving off. It was our error in judgment. But we prefer to blame the restaurant because its coffee was too hot.

That’s been a favorite example for many years, but it hits closer to home. We make a mistake on a report and we don’t acknowledge it, allowing someone else to take the blame. Whew! Dodged that bullet. We audition for a part we don’t get and cry favoritism – it’s not possible that we didn’t prepare well enough. We get a bad performance review and blame the boss because he doesn’t like us. Our child hauls a gun to school and we scramble to defend her because, well, she’s our child and we don’t want her to face any consequences. We forget an appointment with a friend and blame the traffic or the alarm clock or circumstances, but not the simple fact that we just plain forgot. We use blistering rhetoric against our opponents and blame everything but our part in that rhetoric for the lack of collaboration that keeps our country in a gridlock.

It’s not me. It’s them.

In a discussion I read a while ago on the Arbinger Community, Heather Burton posted a challenge that I found not only intriguing but really hard to do. I think it has applications here.

  1. Relate a story of a time when you’ve made a mistake.
  2. Retell the story while only relating the actual mistake (without justification).
  3. The question is: “Why might it be difficult to do just Step 2?”

It’s pretty hard. Try it. Then think about how holding yourself accountable keeps life real and honest and authentic. This year, I’m going to make a conscious effort to be accountable … for my words, for my actions, for my decisions.

Will I be perfect? Goodness, no. But I will do my best on any given day, and that’s good enough for me.

2 thoughts on “In Praise of Accountability

  1. Kristi says:

    This so resonates with me Coach! So I’m reading along (in my little email window) and even before I get to your “Ordinary Courage” blog reference (which I’m going to check out when I’m done with this post!), I’m shaking my head and saying to myself – yep, Coach, you got it – everyone fears being responsible and courageously speaking up. I had a entire module in a college class on the topic of diffusion of resposibility!

    I remember being in a staff meeting once at work where the manager wanted someone to confess to something (I honestly don’t even remember what now!) before we would be allowed to leave the meeting. We all knew who did it and we knew he would not confess, so I confessed (okay, that’s probably not always the smartest thing to do either!).

    Point is, I wanted to move on and did not fear the repercussion. I learned a lot about most of my peers that day – how they reacted to me, the person who committed the banal act and the manager afterward. The manager knew I wasn’t the culprit, but my point was that we wasted a lot of time waiting for someone to be accountable (I think that manager lacked accountability by choosing her method as well!).

    What I’ve concluded is that competence and capacity for account”ability” is like any other ability or skill – it must come through learning, practicing and reflecting on the outcomes experienced. So, for those of us who truly try to maintain an accoutable life – just think of all the wonderful teaching opportunities we have!

  2. Kristi says:

    I’m sorry – I spelled responsibility wrong!

    And there you have it – accountability. Apologizing when you make a mistake!

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