Accountability sucks

As a concept, accountability sucks. As recently discussed, the word doesn’t really have positive connotations; but the process is also scary – to hold someone accountable is to make them your responsibility, and to be held accountable by someone else often means having someone with authority over you scrutinising your every move.

When stressed or scared, our limbic system kicks in and our bodies prepare to do one of three things: fight, flight, or freeze. This adaptation was useful millions of years ago when our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ survival depended on it, but it isn’t particularly helpful in the workplaces of the modern era; where instead of cooperation, it often leads to conflict or, even worse, avoidance of the problem entirely.

In fear of a fight/flight/freeze response, a manager may ignore a problem, meaning that whoever the fault lies with is often left unaware of the problem they may be responsible for.

Another challenge is the response – regardless of whether or not the person in question complies and solves the problem, they may become passive-aggressive in future, or they might even overcorrect and create new issues entirely.

When someone avoids handling the problem, they have frozen, locking both themselves and others into perpetuating new and existing problems. But there is also a knock-on effect here; other team members see the problem not being dealt with, leading them to believe that they don’t have to fix their mistakes – this creates a feedback loop of problems and stress, each growing in magnitude until the situation reaches breaking point.

The longer a problem persists, the more normalised it becomes, and the harder it becomes to address it at all – it looks and feels ridiculous to bring up a problem that has persisted for weeks, if not months.

Longstanding problems also create heightened stress, we imagine they cannot be dealt with reasonably, so we come out ‘guns blazing’ in an attempt to ensure that, whatever happens, we come out on top and the problem is handled.

This takes the workplace straight from ‘freeze’ to ‘fight’, and I think this is where so many go wrong with accountability; we wait too long to address the issue. In ‘fight’ situations, we aren’t really concerned with whether or not they respond aggressively, because we have already become aggressive – a good offence is a good defence, right?

Because we have become stressed, we enter the situation in ‘fight mode’, causing others to do the same – but this aggression robs us of our cognition and emotional intelligence, often leading to poor decision-making.

This leaves us with a strange paradigm – if we hold someone accountable, things go wrong; if we don’t hold someone accountable, things go wrong.

Something here is broken. And it has to do with a longstanding problem.

How many times have you heard a manager say, “I’m here to manage, not to be popular”? We have normalised the idea that being in a position of power over others means we don’t have to be kind or accommodating. This attitude often leads to aggression, as it is, itself, an aggressive stance.

Arguably the best way to change the culture of accountability for the better is to make it less stressful.

This can be achieved by not putting ourselves or our team members into situations where our limbic brains are managing our responses and relationships. We need to deal with problems timeously and respectfully, setting the precedent that being held accountable, and holding others accountable, is a productive process. Finally, we need to prepare both ourselves and our teams for those hard conversations, reducing the likelihood of negative responses.

In short, we have both the right and ability to redesign what accountability is for and how it is approached. The above is the beginning of a new definition of accountability, one that is conscious of, and actively excludes, frustrations caused by our own biological responses.