Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Threads of Accountability

I was in a conversation this week with representatives of an established community wrestling with issues of accountability—which means that they're like almost all other communities I know. It's a good topic because it illuminates a tender spot where most groups are unsure of their footing. While there's no question that there's an issue, there are many questions about how to proceed.

In exploring this juicy topic, I want to start by positing some background universals:

o  In community there are more occasions to get irritated about accountability (than in the mainstream) because you've purposefully chosen a life in which there will be more sharing: everything from tools and resources, to cleaning and child care; from participation in group governance to personal confessions that you're trusting will be kept confidential. That means a lot more chances to run afoul of expectations.

o  No one wants to be the police, nor do communities want to live with police. It's an unpleasant role and not one that people had in mind when they were drawn to community.

o  It's ineffective to rely solely on informal, one-on-one direct conversations to clear up misunderstandings and hurt feelings in connection with accountability. While—thankfully—this works some of the time, there are any number of reasons why this breaks down: a) past attempts at direct communication with that person were unpleasant or ineffective, and you're unwilling to go through that again; b) it's personally too scary to give someone (or that person) critical feedback; c) you're paralyzed by your emotional response; or d) you think it's a bigger issue than just you and the other person, or just this occasion.

o  Groups invariably prefer that members exercise a high degree of personal responsibility, such that there's minimal occasion to worry about accountability. That is, members are not looking for opportunities to be bosses over other members, or to have other members telling them what to do. While there are times when that's appropriate, and some have a knack for it, it's not what people are looking for when they join community.

o  Going the other way, there's resistance to spelling everything out in detail, such that there's often a need to interpret the spirit of agreements (because the letter is fuzzy), allowing for latitude of interpretation—which becomes the devil's playground.

o  While groups try to craft agreements with as much specificity as they can muster (trying to anticipate the situations in which they will be applied), the reality is that extenuating (unanticipated) circumstances are common, such that there's considerable nuance in determining how much leeway should be extended in light of them. In short, life is messy—so please try to minimize how much time you spend lamenting that fact, or pretending otherwise.

With all of that in mind, my sense is that accountability issues tend to clump into four major types:

A. Individuals (or committees) not doing what they said they'd do, or not accomplishing it in a timely manner. Maybe they get partial credit, but they're glossing over or blowing off crucial components. This can take the form of their not putting in the time, or their not being effective when they do (or both).

B. Expiring agreements not being removed from the books when they've been made obsolete by newer agreements, the conditions no longer obtain, or they were never effective and it's time to bring reality into alignment with theory. When the group doesn't clean up its agreements, the dead wood starts to undercut the vibrancy of the live wood. ("Why do I have to follow agreement X when everyone ignores agreement Y?")

C. Members are perceived to be coloring outside the lines of acceptable behavior. This is most acute with explicit norms (for example, yelling and screaming in a nonviolent community), yet also occurs when there is an implied norm (never helping to clear the dishes after a common meal, or seldom lending a hand to bring in the groceries when the food truck arrives).

D. Members are felt to be taking advantage of an allowance for flexibility based on personal circumstances, such that they frequently under-perform relative to general expectations and are perceived to be taking advantage of the system to not do their fair share.

What to Do?
Here are a number of suggestions for ways to get traction with this slippery eel:

o  Establish a Work Committee whose mandate includes being available to help resolve misunderstandings and tensions between members. (This task may be backed up by a Conflict Resolution Team if dynamics get hairy.)

o  Ask further that the Work Committee periodically meet with all residents to stay current on their personal circumstances regarding ability to contribute to the community, helping them find suitable ways to contribute (to the extent possible), and sensitively informing the rest of the community about what's happening when there are exemptions.

o  Every so often conduct a Martyrs & Slackers conversation to clear the air about the sense that contributions may be significantly out of balance.

o  Check to see that the Membership Committee is doing a solid job of making sure that all new residents are aware of agreements and the expectations around participation.

o  Have a conversation ("pre-need," as they say in the mortuary business) about what you think is an appropriate menu of options if someone's determined to have fallen short of meeting expectations, and the process by which that will be considered. (Increase dues to cover hiring people to do the work that was not done? Jawboning? Measured withholding of social benefits? Paddle machine? Tar and feathering?)

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