This third episode in the series about the anatomy of trust is A for Accountability. Accountability means taking responsibility for your mistakes, and holding others accountable for theirs. Simon Sinek says you can't take credit for your successes if you don't take accountability for your mistakes. Watch him talk about accountability for a few minutes...
It's impossible to be accountable on your own. We're social animals, and we need to be accountable to other people. But do we really need to be accountable?
Let's look at a recent example in motorsport, F1's event in Suzuka in 2014. There was extreme bad weather forecast, and race organisers were advised to bring the race time forward. The race went ahead at the scheduled time, and several drivers crashed, including Jules Bianchi.
The report on the investigation into Bianchi's crash concluded that it was driver error, prompting the Bianchi family to bring a civil suit against several motorsport entities. This is an entirely avoidable lawsuit.
If that report had concluded that the conditions leading to the driver error was forced by extreme weather, the Bianchi family would have been able to remember Jules as a good driver in bad circumstances. If the writers of the report had been less busy covering their own backsides, and spent more time thinking about the impact of their words, it might have turned out differently. The Bianchis would have been able to retain some dignity in Jules' memory.
Most of us don't fail as epically as the race and series organisers did that day. Most of us fail in ways that are embarrassing, humiliating, guilt-ridden, or shameful, rather than legally punishable – we do understand that if the race and series organisers admitted guilt, they may have ended up in prison for negligence that lead to a fatality. But if we want to be trusted in the long run, we have to allow people to hold us to account.
Let's just get something straight: accountability is not blame. To quote Brené Brown, 'accountability is most often motivated by the desire to repair and renew – it is holding someone responsible for their actions and the consequences of their actions.
'On the other hand, we often use blame to discharge overwhelming feelings of fear and shame: “This is painful – who can I blame? I'll blame you! You are bad and this is your fault.” Inherent in holding ourselves or others accountable for our behaviour is expecting change or resolution like shame, blame shuts us down and is not an effective tool for change.'
With that comparison in your mind, do you think in the example above, the lawsuit is motivated by blame or accountability? If we blame Ecclestone et al. for Jules' accident, are they likely to be safer in future? If we hold them accountable for not moving the race forward in a way that doesn't label them as inherently bad people, are they going to feel more empowered to say, 'You know what? Let's loss the TV audience ratings, and move the race time forward for safety,' next time there's a typhoon forecast for a race weekend?
Ideally, we want to be held accountable by people we trust. Get to know someone well before accepting accountability from them. It can be very traumatic to have an accountability partner – or boss – who regularly engages in crazy-making behaviours.
If someone goes straight to attack and criticism, they are not a safe accountability person. If someone never sees your side of the story, always playing 'devil's advocate' when you're talking about your experiences, they are not suitable. If someone makes you question your perception and reality to make themselves seem better, they are engaging in a behaviour called 'gaslighting,' which is considered emotional abuse.
Healthy accountability is when someone probes why you did what you did, and is willing to soundboard possible alternative solutions to the problem. Healthy accountability aims for guilt (you/we did something bad) rather than shame (you/we are something bad), and will go to the point of pulling you out of a shame spiral so you can hear the real message. Healthy accountability is kind and respectful during the criticism.
And the best way to respond? With a genuine apology. Marshall Rosenberg argues against apologies in 'Speak Peace In A World Of Conflict,' because his definition of an apology doesn't include genuine remorse. Harriet Lerner, in her work on apologies, says that a good apology includes an empathic expression of the hurt done to the other person.
Lerner says in her course on apologies that 'a real apology conveys that they get it, that what you say makes sense, and your feelings about the hurt are real. A real apology recognises the validity of pain.' A real apology 'feels genuine. The other person must really have listened, and convey that they get it, what they said or did was wrong, and they won't do it again.'
Going back to the Suzuka 2014 example, if people had expressed how sorry they were for the multitude of tiny errors that led to Jules' accident, the lawsuit could have been avoided. There were a myriad of contributing factors that led to the crash, but the report ruled that it was entirely Jules' driver error. If each person who made a mistake or choice that led to the crash had apologised sincerely for their part, the Bianchi's pain would have been lessened by being recognised by the wider community, and they would be significantly less likely to bring a court action.
Taking accountability for the failures isn't easy. Nobody's saying that it's easy to say, 'I did wrong; I see the pain I caused you. I'm sorry, and will do [the following] to remediate my actions in that moment.' It uses emotional reserves to process what your part was in the wrongdoing, how that probably felt to the person on the receiving end, how you can learn and grow from the experience, and what you can do better next time.
It's also not easy to say, 'I think that thing you did was unfair/unkind/unethical. I would like an acknowledgement of how much it hurts to receive your behaviour. In future, please would you do this instead, as that benefits both/all of us in the long run.' It's especially difficult if the person you're holding to account is your boss, teacher, parent, or someone in a position of power over you, and more especially in high power distance cultures (read Malcom Gladwell's 'Outliers' for several chapters on the effects of cultural power distance on success in the workplace). Not all leaders subscribe to the belief that everyone in an organisation should be able to give performance feedback to everyone.
Most of the biological processes in our bodies exist on feedback loop systems. Hormone levels are driven by feedback loops. Muscle movement is governed by feedback loops. Heart rate is governed by a feedback loop. We can't claim to have evolved past the need for feedback loops in our friendships and work lives.
This is why accountability is so important to trust. We can't trust someone who claims to be above reproach; we're all human, and therefore all make mistakes at some point. We instinctively know that anyone who tries to exempt themselves from that is untrustworthy.
We want your feedback in the comments or the social media threads. Have you successfully held someone accountable? How did you do it? Have you been held accountable in ways that left you feeling empowered to change? How did they do it?