“My cats shredded your couch. You are correct.”
This is the phrase that converted my husband’s lack of appreciation for cats into a wholesale intolerance of anything remotely feline. It was uttered by his then roommate, a woman with two cats to whom he very reluctantly rented one of the rooms of his house in the years before I met him.
“I always distrusted cats,” he told me, “but I became staunchly opposed to living with them after that experience. I allowed her to move in on the condition that she would be accountable for any damage done by her cats. She agreed.” So he rented her the room and shortly thereafter he discovered that his couch has been shredded. Fatefully, neither had defined “accountability.”
“When I confronted her about the situation,” he said, “she promptly acknowledged the damage done by her cats.” But that’s as far as the roommate went. When asked by my husband, “What about the fact that you agreed to be accountable for the damage?,” her response was simply, “I said I would be accountable and I am. My cats did indeed shred your couch.”
What this story reveals is how wildly perspectives can differ on something as seemingly indisputable as accountability. I hear from clients all the time that they want more accountability in their workplaces. The emphasis is typically on others being more accountable: leaders looking for employees to be more accountable; employees looking for leaders to be more accountable. What I hear most commonly is that people are looking for persons other than themselves to be more accountable, when very likely we all need to be more accountable to ourselves, for ourselves, and certainly to each other in order to resolve concerns.
And, as the story about my husband’s roommate illustrates, we also need to have a clearer perspective of what behaviors we are really looking for when we look for people to be more accountable. Do we want confession, apology, or something else?
What is Accountability?
According to Merriam Webster, accountability describes “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” The question unanswered by this definition is as to what level of response is necessary to satisfactorily convey one’s willingness to accept responsibility. This is the place of departure, not only for my husband’s roommate, but also one we see play out by others in the news. Last week, President Obama and others spoke out urging that someone on behalf of Veterans Affairs hospitals step up and be responsible for reports of misconduct, treatment delays and falsified records. In one news report, the person being interviewed insisted that persons responsible for problems at the VA be identified so they could be “punished.” Similarly, as General Motors CEO Mary Barra responds to Congressional inquiries on behalf of GM, the scope of the investigation even extends to her personally – looking closely into what she knew, and when – and to what degree she might be individually accountable for issues, along with others, for failing to promptly resolve known problems.
Is that what we seek, then, when we ask people to be accountable? That they willingly come forward to be punished, fined, vilified, and/or fired? If so, accountability may become ever more elusive where it is understood to be a socially acceptable form of blaming and finger-pointing, and under the most egregious circumstances, a call for persecution and punishment.
Several years ago when a passenger jet landed in Portland, Oregon, a hole was discovered in the side of the plane. Investigation into what happened revealed that one of the ground crew in Seattle had inadvertently punctured the side of the plane with a piece of equipment. When interviewed, the ground crew member reported that he didn’t say anything when the accident happened because he was afraid he would get in trouble. Fortunately, no one was injured and the plane landed without problem. And the fact that crew member was ultimately accountable after the fact, during the investigation, offers very little consolation given the high stakes. His fear of being accountable for the damage at the time it happened – fearing that he would lose his job if he admitted his mistake – could have caused numerous injuries and deaths.
This story demonstrates the limited value of accountability, particularly after the damage has already been done. Perhaps even more than accountability, aren’t we really looking to solve a problem, improve performance, heal a relationship, save some lives, take care of our vets . . . . or maybe even just replace a couch?
We don’t need any more people to blame or shame. What we need most is people who will confidently identify a problem so that together we can work to fix it. I’m not suggesting that we gloss over intentional cover ups and attempts to evade the truth. Instead, in countless ways we need to look at ways to speak up and welcome concerns so that problems can be more simply and promptly resolved for everyone’s benefit.