Accountability and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Brené Brown is known for highlighting the impact of what she calls, “the stories we tell ourselves”. In her Netflix special, The Call to Courage, she recounts how while swimming with her husband he did not respond as expected to a statement from her. She started mulling over what could be happening, thinking up a variety of scenarios – most of which she questioned herself in. After the swim she realised that he had in ear plugs and could not hear her and that is why he didn’t respond, and not the myriad of other reasons she had imagined. Hence she knows how the stories we tell ourselves can harm us. But where do these stories come from?.

Where elephants, zebras and rhinos are born with their eyes wide open and learn to walk within the first few minutes of their lives, in contrast, humans take years before they are able to do anything substantial on their own, this leads to survival and safety-related challenges.

We solve this by being a social species. From birth we are programmed to fit in with those around us – mimicking our parents, learning to speak, etc, our drive to survive is led by one core rule: fit in to survive.

But because we are a social species, we are also meaning-makers. This combination has us trying to find the otherwise hidden meanings behind people’s words and actions. “Behaving well gets me better care, more love, and the nourishment I need to survive”, etc.

This is all well and good for babies, but this programming sticks with us well into adulthood.

Smoking a cigarette in high school might get you into the ‘cool kids club’, but it could ostracise you from others. Being treated poorly by someone for no discernible reason will leave you confused and wondering what it was that you did wrong.

In the end, this means that social situations often boil down to a sort of guessing game, one in which we agonise over the small details, asking ourselves questions (“Why are they treating me like this?”, “What do we need to talk about?”, “Is something wrong?”, “Did I do something wrong?”, “Am I in trouble?”) and building stories in an attempt to answer these questions and rationalise the behaviour of those around us.

These stories have a tendency to go unchecked for lengthy periods of time, leading us to build layers upon layers of stories. This is particularly dangerous in the work environment when it comes to holding yourself, or others accountable. This is why feedback is considered a “difficult” discussion and is often referred to as “constructive criticism” – a euphemism that softens the concept but not the reality of the situation.

This pitfall is caused by a lack of necessary information – another common mistake in work environments is a meeting request with no agenda and a vague description; nothing screams “difficult conversation incoming” more.

Because this subconscious response operates on an instinctive level, it is coming from a place of “I need to survive”, and when survival instincts kick in, we go into one of three ‘modes’: fight, flight, or fright, which automatically draws blood away from the brain, sending it instead to the heart, lungs and limbs in preparation for either fighting or fleeing.

You can see how counterintuitive this is when what you actually need is to discuss, think and plan.

When giving feedback, this kind of survival-based behaviour is the last thing anyone actually needs, and it can be easily avoided; “I think that you’ve been doing this task poorly, let’s discuss”, rapidly followed up with “Here are the mistakes we’ve found, here are the references, here is how we think this can be solved now and here is what we can do in order to prevent this in future” is clear, detailed and concise when compared to “We need to talk”.

Interestingly enough, it isn’t just other people who can put us into the ‘lack of information’ pitfall – we can do it to ourselves too. Avoiding someone instead of asking them what’s wrong, starting discussions with the intent to talk instead of listen, making assumptions about a job’s requirements (“I need a degree”, “I’m too young/old”), etc.

How do we deal with this?

Share the stories you tell yourself with others, ask questions, move from the abstract to the concrete – a frank discussion might seem uncomfortable, but it can break down the barriers we enforce on ourselves and others.

When it comes to accountability and holding others accountable, we are prone to telling ourselves stories – about things gone wrong, about the things we don’t know, or about our own actions or shortcomings. This behaviour is born of instinct, and functions as a biological survival mechanism, but it isn’t particularly helpful in the workplace.