Sunday :: May 3, 2009

Accountability & Responsibility and What it Means for the Human Spirit


by Mary

Sara Robinson has a couple of very interesting posts that delve into the major differences between conservative and liberal philosophies. The first post goes into how differently conservatives and liberals view discipline, accountability, responsibility and punishment.

Thirty years of conservative misrule have muddled Americans' understanding of words like responsibility, accountability, discipline,and punishment to the point where nobody knows that they mean any moreā€”and don't seem to want to know, either. The social conservatives go on and on about the evils of postmodern morality and situational ethics; and on this score, I can't quite summon myself to disagree. It's been as though nobody on Planet Washington ever had a parent who was able to explain right from wrong, or demonstrate the role cause-and-effect plays in the ethical universe. It's like a moral-gravity-free zone.

...For conservatives, the goal of discipline is to assert the power of external authority. In their worldview, most people aren't capable of self-discipline. They can't be trusted to behave unless there's someone stronger in control who's willing to scare them back into line when they misbehave. Don't question the rules. Don't defy authority. Just do what you're told, and you'll be fine. But cross that line, dammit, and there will be hell to pay.

In the conservative view (which in our country tends to be more explicitly authoritarian), the only way to make people do the right thing is to have someone in charge. But for liberals, the belief is people learn how to be responsible. As Sara says,

Liberal parenting books, on the other hand, talk a lot about "logical and natural consequences." Since liberals believe that most people are perfectly capable of making good moral choices without constant oversight from some outside authority, the goal of discipline is to strengthen the child's internal decision-making skills in order to prepare him for adult self-governance.

As adults we are expected to be able to make good, moral decisions and should not need to have an external ruler to keep us inline.

Sara is right that consequences are important and we can't have be a nation governed by the rule of law if we let some people take no consequences for their decisions or their actions. Because it only encourages others to game the system. Furthermore, it disempowers people who should be able to take a much stronger part in creating the societies we want to have.

Recently I ran across a tremendous presentation from the world of Agile software development which dovetailed nicely with Sara's piece. Last November, Christopher Avery gave a talk about what makes teamwork work and how it relates to the individual.

(If you haven't been exposed to Agile software development, one of the key components of Agile is an inherent trust of the individuals and the teams to self-manage their projects and not have the schedules, the work, and decisions imposed from those outside or those higher in the hierarchy. Agile believes in and encourages collaborative teamwork - the very definition of a strongly democratic process.)

Christopher Avery's talk at the InfoQ Conference was titled: Teamwork is an Individual Skill: How to Build Any Team Any Time. The whole presentation is well worth watching, but I did want to highlight some of the points that are relevant to Sara's point.

What he says is one of the most important challenges we have is learning to work effectively with people over whom we have no control. This is an essential skill to have in the Agile world but even more so in the wider world. Namely, how do we create environments and systems where people don't look only to their own success, but the success of the larger team? What Avery asserts is this is even more important now as many of our problems require us have a sense of shared responsibility, because these problems fall between and outside the stated roles and responsibilities of individuals or individual teams. The key ingredient for creating teams that work (while empowering individuals to truly apply their creative, problem-solving energies for their shared problems) is creating environments which engender trust and reinforce our shared responsibility by building win-win attitudes.

He says the difference between accountability and responsibility is misunderstood in our society. In fact, you hear these words being used all the time as if they were interchangeable, but they are not. So he spends some time explaining the difference. The key point for "Accountability" is that this is something that is external to the individual. As he said accountability is a management tool - I can hold you to account for a process, operation or result and as such this is the fundamental building block of all organizations. Furthermore, accountability is a relationship tool: it's the process of making and keeping agreements and calling each other on those agreements.

Responsibility on the other hand is a feeling of ownership and because it is a feeling, it is subjective, transient, different for different people, and different for the same person at different times. Our sense of responsibility can be small (I am responsible for myself, or my family) or large (I feel responsible for our government or how we are taking care of the planet). Some of us are more willing to have a broader sense of responsibility. Our sense of ownership is really our willingness to respond to a situation.

And it is important to note that we can be held to account for things we do not feel responsible for. But really, for us to be most fully engaged in our lives, we need to feel a true sense of ownership for our lives and the problems that arise. And for healthier organizations and societies, it is best to make sure our area of accountability is contained in our our area of willingness to take responsibility.

He describes excellent teamwork as when people know and believe:

If I drop the ball, you are willing to pick it up. And when you make a mistake, I'm willing to fix it.

As you can see, this type of teamwork absolutely requires people gladly taking responsibility for each other.

True teamwork enables shared responsibility that allows people to work in their most resourceful and fully engaged selves working to solve problems that are bigger than all of us, and cannot be solved without all of us coming together.

What made this presentation especially exciting was his insight into the fact that the sense of responsibility is so variable and transient, because what it really means is that being responsible isn't based on one's character, but rather it is based on knowing how we can use our mistakes to learn and grow -- skills and attitudes that can be learned. And he takes his audience through the process that we all have to go through to get to a place where we can take true responsibility. The way he describes it is that we need to understand the language and psychology that keeps us from engaging in resourceful problem-solving.

We all understand the stages of grief because we have a framework and language that helps frame our understanding about how people process grief.

What Christopher Avery describes here is a framework for understanding how people can use process to move from denial to acceptance and finally ownership in resolving problems which can be just as powerful as understanding the stages of grief. The tools he walks through set up a framework that individuals can use to understand how they can claim ownership for their lives.

What Avery emphasized is that the types of problems he is discussing in this framework are those where we go "oh-oh" - or more precisely, what responsibility do we take when something goes wrong?

So what are the stages we use to keep from owning problems?

When something goes wrong, all humans start off with the first stage: we blame someone else for the problem. Obviously, when someone else is to blame, then we can't fix it.

The next stage is we justify the reason it happened. "Sh*t happens." The weather was bad, and I couldn't stop the car. It certainly wasn't something that I could have done anything about. Again, we refuse to see how we could change what happened or what we could do to fix things.

Next we start to admit that we might have been at fault. At that point, we feel shame for what we did. But unfortunately, although we feel shame for what happened, we have not yet gotten to a point where we can learn from the situation and change our response in the future.

Once we get past shame, we find ourselves consumed by our sense of obligation (Darn, I have to visit my in-laws over the holidays). And as Avery said, when we act out of a sense of obligation our level of performance in fulfilling our task is "barely adequate to get a pass."

In order to truly act and engage, we need to get past these four stages and see how we can take real ownership for our decisions and actions. At that point, when we fully own our decisions and actions, we are able to engage in the clear and resourceful thinking that allows us to really solve problems.

What is so interesting to me about his clarity of thinking on how people actually are able take on ownership is how closely it relates to liberal concepts of what makes healthy, self-actualized human beings who are willing and able to take responsibility for their actions and who know how to use their experiences to learn and improve.

Sara's second post was on how strongly our worldviews are affected by our upbringing.

One part of Christopher's discussion was closely connected to this point as well. When trying to define how an individual can find the power to change the direction of others, it is important to see what different types of powers humans have. To explain this, Avery called on the seminal work by Kenneth Boulding who described three basic types of power: 1) Power Over (the power that comes from authority - how conservatives understand power), 2) Power To/By (the power gained by what you can give me in exchange - today we see the corruption of this as the power big corporations have in being heard by our politicians) and 3) Power With or integrative power. Avery describes this as:

Your ability to use only your ideas and your actions to attract other people to you to accomplish something far greater than you could do by yourself.

The third power is the one that is the most inspiring for humans as it is the one that can transform our ability to contribute to those things that matter beyond ourselves. As this paper says,

Integrative power is thus defined as the capacity to obtain what we need and want, in concert with others. This is the richest form of power because it is rooted in the most basic element of human nature. It also has the richest potential. Because human organizations are dynamic and organic, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. Integrative power thus transforms in a way that always adds to what existed before the change.

In so many ways, the concept of unleashing the best in human beings (trusting that they can and will step up to the enormous challenges we have with a great sense of shared responsibility) is truly the liberal philosophy. And it has the ability to not only transform our individual lives, but transform our world into something that is one which can never be achieved by those working only for themselves. Nothing I have seen in the conservative worldview has anything so inspiring for which humans can aspire to and should be expected to reach.

(x-posted on Pacific Views)

Mary :: 9:57 PM :: Comments (41) :: Digg It!