Friday, October 17, 2008

Accountability & Punishment

One of the hardest things for people to handle well is critical feedback about their behavior. No one enjoys finding out that others are having a problem with something you've said or done, and there's an amazing array of things people do to keep feedback at bay—many of which are far more clever then the standard alliterative trio of defensiveness, denial, or deflection.

(Let me tell you of a great scheme I had working for a number of years, until a careful observer busted me on it. Whenever someone criticized me, I'd start beating myself up, often with more vigor than I was approached with. Horrified by how hard I was on myself, people near me learned to be careful about giving me feedback, for fear of triggering my next display of self-flagellation. Most people stopped giving me critical feedback, or at least curtailed it sharply. Then, of course, I couldn't be held responsible for not heeding feedback I'd never been given. Oh, it was plenty clever.)

And yet we need feedback—especially critical feedback—to understand more accurately how our words and deeds are landing. If you're not sure about this, think about how important pain is to maintaining health. If you step on a nail, it's a damn good thing that your foot hurts. I'm not saying it's good that you're in pain; I'm saying that it's good that pain alerts you to look at your foot, so you can take the nail out. There is as analog with behavior. While you'd prefer that people have a positive response to what you do, it's valuable to know when they don't because it's information you'll want to weigh before deciding whether to repeat that behavior. If you don't get the information, it's of no use to you.

While everything I've written so far applies to all human interactions, the stakes are higher in community, where people tend to be in each other's lives much more (which translates into more opportunities for friction). And this brings me to the point I want to write about. For a significant number of people living in community, they have combined a number of things about feedback and come up with a startling blind spot. It works like this:

1. Because their prior experiences with giving or receiving critical feedback have gone poorly (which is undoubtedly the background almost all of us have), they cultivate acceptance and tolerance as an art form (or at least as a coping mechanism). Within that practice, it is considered a loss of control to criticize another. They believe that everyone is doing the best they can, and that forgiveness will go further in building a loving world than holding people accountable for their shortcomings.

2. There is also a tendency to equate oneself with one's actions. Thus, critcism about their behavior is tantamount to critcisim about them as a person. An unwashed dish becomes a dirty soul. There is also a corollary to this, where criticism about a result is translated into an accusation that you meant the bad thing to happen. While I'm not saying that people don't accuse each other of bad intent, mostly this assignment happens without any direct statement about intent having been made. Amazingly, people just assume it, and they can have the missiles out of the silos and primed to launch before pausing to reflect that "I'm upset that you left the kitchen a mess last night," is not the same thing as "You left the kitchen a mess last night knowing that it would upset me."

3. There is considerable emphasis on positive reinforcement in intentional communities, as opposed ot guiding beahvior through limit setting. Thus, people would prefer to encourage and reward good behavior rather than focus on how to curtail and extinguish undesirable behavior.

What this trio of beliefs leads to is a bad reaction when someone attempts to hold that person accountable for their behavior. Because their acuser has spoken up (and therefore chosen to forego tolerance and aceptance), they must be intending to punish (dragging you into the arena of critcial feedback, where the bad things happen). Now, in addition to the behavior itself, you have to deal with the added distress associated with an accusation of intent to punish (which is pretty interesting coming from a person who advocates not judging others at all).

For people with this profile, accountability and punishment are interchangeable terms. Because "good" people don't punish others, asking for accountability is tantamount to an admission that you have it in for someone else. Trying to sort out how the other person got to that conclusion can be like trying to wade through a vat of jello—with just as much visibility.

I think the only way through this mess is to take the conversation all the back to definitions and find out which terms are loaded with what baggage. For he folks I've described above, "accountability" is a trigger word. For others it simply indicates what happens when boundaries are crossed and someone notices. Your group isn't going anywhere (at least not anywhere you'd willingly go) until you've been able to develop concepts and a vocabulary that bridges the various philosophies around feedback.

I wish you luck… or, failing that, the chance to pick the flavor of the jello.

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