Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Consensus Challenges: Accountability

This is the final installment of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Accountability.

When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal [posted July 29]
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms [posted Aug 10]
IX. Coping with blocking energy [posted Aug 19]
X. Defining respect [posted Sept 3]
XI. Balancing voices [posted Sept 18 & Sept 30]

XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake [posted Oct 27]
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go [posted Nov 18]
XIV. Accountability

• • •
As I've written about this topic before (see my entry of Oct 17, 2008: Accountability & Punishment), what I'll offer today is intended as complementary—not repetitive.

I concluded my 2008 monograph with the admonition that groups need to get clear about how they view feedback, including both the right members have to dish it out and the responsibility they have to receive it. Although it's been my experience that few groups lay this out, and don't begin to tackle it until they're immersed in a dynamic where the ambiguity bites them in the butt, here are the essential elements that I think need to be in place:

A. That members will make themselves available (with reasonable options) for hearing critical feedback from other members about their behavior as a member of the group

Note that there is an important boundary here around what individual behaviors are subject to group comment. It is, for example, most unlikely that the group is expected to have any say in whether a member wears a blue shirt or a red one (unless, of course it's Election Day). That would be considered a private matter and if you didn't like a person's clothing choices they would ordinarily be under no obligation to listen to your complaint about it.

Going the other way, if the group had a core commitment to environmental impact and you observed the manager of the community parking lot using a gas-powered leaf blower to clear the asphalt, you would have a right to register a complaint about it. (I'm not saying the manager couldn't have a good reason for using the leaf blower, or what the outcome of the complaint would be; I'm only saying that the manager would be expected to treat seriously a complaint about whether they were doing work on behalf of the group in a way that was consistent with group values.

Now let's peel this onion one layer deeper. Sometimes private choices can have a demonstrable impact on the group, such that it's sensible to have a forum where the group can discuss this impact, even though everyone acknowledges that it was an appropriately private choice that triggered it. The point of the forum would be to share reactions and attend to relationships, not to censure or celebrate people's private choices. A good example of this might be when people make a change in intimate partners. [For more on this, see my blog of Sept 30, 2010: The Relationship of Relationships to the Group.] 

B. Hearing critical feedback is not a commitment to agreeing with it, or agreeing to change one's behavior. It's an agreement to try to understand the complaint and put forward a reasonable effort to find a mutually satisfactory resolution.

C. Because it's unwise to expect that members will always be able to accomplish this on their own, it's generally a good idea to create a Conflict Resolution Team whose job it is to be a resource in case of need, to support people working through tensions when they feel overwhelmed at the prospect of managing it themselves, when they are ineffective in doing so, or even to hold their feet to the fire when they attempt to ignore it.
• • •
In my 2008 essay I explored how accountability is often associated with punishment. It's potent, I think, to try to shift away from judgment and toward looking at the impact of obligations that have not been met, or are perceived to have not been met well enough.

It's possible that tensions about unmet expectations are exposing vagueness about what was expected. Perhaps the deadlines were not clearly set. Perhaps details about what the job entailed were not laid out well. Perhaps the group is poor with minutes and people's memories diverge about what was agreed to.

But let's suppose that ambiguities have been taken care of and there's no disagreement about the perception that an obligation was not been met. While consequences in the way of fines or loss of rights are a possibility, those options are generally exceptional and offenses need to be egregious to wheel them out. For run-of-the-mill frustrations—even patterned ones—it's important to understand that the main leverage point is damage to relationship.

Connections among members are the glue of the community and the point of why you live together. When someone's efforts are perceived to be coming up short, it lets down the group and it lets down the relationships. Unattended, that damage can seriously erode the cohesion and joy that the group intended by making the choice to live together. With that in mind, I believe that the most fruitful way to think about accountability is to make sure that the person who feels let down has had a decent chance to express that hurt or sadness to the person who didn't meet the obligation, and that the recipient has had a clear opportunity to describe their experience of the same dynamic.

There is also the challenge of how to sensitively incorporate flexibility into the mix. In the name of diversity there tends to be ready acceptance with the concept that people vary and that it's reasonable to adjust expectations based on people's life circumstances and capacities. The delicate question is how much flexibility is appropriate and who gets to decide which expectations should be waived or adjusted? At what point are those that are better off being taken advantage of by those with diminished capacities? These are tricky conversations. Yet they're conversations you need to have if you want to avoid the erosion of trust that ensues from caustic cloak room comments that go unaddressed.

When examining an unmet obligation, or the sense that someone is taking advantage of someone else, you want the main objective to be gaining a better understanding of everyone's experience and repairing damage to relationship, rather than translating frustrations into fines or exacting retribution. In the context of community, relationship is the ultimate coin of the realm and the prime directive is engaging in a way that enhances and preserves that precious commodity, rather than devalues it or squanders it. 

To be sure, not everyone is meant to live together and patterns of unmet obligations may signal a mismatch. However, that should be the conclusion reached only after you've tried to work it out first.

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