Let’s (not) Talk About Accountability

Let’s (not) Talk About Accountability

A good deal of my consulting work boils down to creating a pretext for necessary conversations between people at work. These may be conversations about clarifying roles and role boundaries, agreeing priorities, establishing group norms and shared values, working through divisive conflicts or untangling baffling conundrums. But sometimes the consultancy begs the question, ‘why are these conversations being avoided in the first place?’ My (rather obvious) working hypothesis is that what is revealed or exposed by the process is 1) that the parties involved are highly interdependent (that is, they rely upon one another to get things done) and 2) that this makes each person visible and accountable to the others in quite explicit ways.

It is possible that, although uncomfortable, there is an unconscious investment in keeping things blurry or muddled. Perhaps this is a way of protecting against the even more uncomfortable feelings associated with being in a position of having to be accountable and or hold each other to account. If things are clear and agreed (in terms of e.g. roles, responsibilities, goals, actions etc), but not adhered to, then we find ourselves faced with the choice to either stay silent or speak up. Leadership teams can create all manner of ‘work-arounds’ so as to avoid such ‘moments of truth’ with each other. Like Julius Sumner Miller, we might be provoked to ask, ‘why is this so?’

In an attempt to respond to this question, I will draw upon a recent paper of a colleague, Mark Stein (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7fUMjsxuZo) about the whistleblower and the loss of the good self. It is well-known that whistleblowing is a risky business that can result in becoming an object of hatred that is actively attacked and excluded from the organisation or community. In briefest terms, Stein’s hypothesis is that in being identified as having failed or acted with impropriety we may be put in touch with a sense of having lost our ‘good’ selves (our sense of being a good person). This arouses shame and guilt and we lash out at the one who made us feel this way. So unconsciously, we ‘shoot the messenger’ rather than be in touch with such unwanted feelings. No doubt, in the Australian context, this is further complicated by embedded tenets such as ‘you don’t dob in a mate’. The whistleblower has breached a sacred code. Is it possible that at some level, this dynamic is what is in play in the moment of either being held to account or holding the other to account? Is it feelings of shame and fear of exclusion that make accountability so unwanted? Are our ‘good selves’ felt to be at risk?

If even a small part of the answer to these questions is yes, then it seems understandable that we might wish to avoid accountability. What to do? My suggestion is that where we err in our thinking is by putting ourselves and how we feel (or how we might make others feel) at the centre of the conundrum and our motivations. If instead, what remain front of mind are the work, its purpose and the people we seek to serve, the emphasis shifts and the whole accountability piece is less personalised (and persecuting). In this way, our authorised roles, our purpose, our work objectives and our clients become the ‘rulers’ and the ‘containers’ for the accountability discussion. When executive teams can make this shift, these discussions become a whole lot easier.

Convenient Fiction? Diagnostic surveys and other blunt instruments

Convenient Fiction? Diagnostic surveys and other blunt instruments

Sometimes I say, with a bit of cheek, that Executive Teams are prepared to pay a lot of money NOT to learn about what is really going on in their organisations. Every year, so many resources are spent on quantitative survey tools that loosely point to areas of challenge (e.g. poor communication, bullying, low morale, distant managers, high turnover etc.), but provide little or no rich detail about what sits behind the data in terms of the lived experience that prompts the given responses. Investing in survey tools can deliver the illusion or a sense of taking responsibility and being seen to do something to improve organisational culture and engagement, while actually delivering very little by way of a clear diagnosis or appropriate interventions that go to the heart of the problems and address the gaps between desired work culture and reality.

Practitioners of psychodynamic approaches to organisational diagnosis and change are all too familiar with the lengths that individuals, groups and organisations will go to not to discover what is really going on. I am reminded of a colleague who once said, ‘I guess because you’re naming dynamics that people don’t really want to know about – you’re cutting through defences to some extent, as you have to if they’re dysfunctional …A lot of people want to live in the Matrix and they don’t want to know about this stuff.’

The mystery here is that people will put up with a lot of misery to avoid discovering what may be inconvenient ‘truths’ about themselves, their way of working and/or their work systems and processes. Whether this is about a failure to spend enough time listening to staff, making spaces for difficult but necessary conversations between interdependent teams, having clearly defined roles and agreed goals, taking time to mourn the losses associated with recent changes or just getting to know each other, the cure somehow seems worse than the disease. I find that most of the time, people instinctively know what is wrong and what may be needed to change things, but somehow find it easier not to make this explicit.

What is required, is space, time and a willingness to hold each other to account over the most basic responsibilities and shared agreements. People often imagine that this makes it ‘personal’ rather than actually acting in the service of the organisation’s purpose and from the authority appropriately vested in the role. Making this shift to working from role and in the service of the work is a lot easier and less painful than people imagine and can bring a lot of ‘relief’ from the misery of things staying as they are or have always been. But this is not the kind of thing that can be learned from survey results and this is what makes them (sometimes) useful, but blunt instruments of organisational change.

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