Thursday, April 9, 2015

Accountability: Conflating Task Monitors with the Police

One of the most challenging topics for cooperative groups to tackle is accountability. What do you do when someone doesn't deliver on a promise or is perceived to be breaking an agreement?

For the most part cooperative groups simply hope the problem will go away—and fortunately, it largely does. That is, most members will voluntarily be good citizens on their own recognizance. They'll do their chores, help out on Work Days, and mostly follow through on commitments to the group—all without anyone sending out reminders or looking over their shoulder.

However, good intentions are not enough. Some will forget, some will be too busy, some chafe at expectations of any kind, some will purposefully step back from commitments because of a story they have about how they were wronged and it's never been addressed, etc. So the question is not whether it's going to happen, but how you're going to handle it.

The short answer is that you're going to have to learn how to talk about it, because here's the deal—it doesn't go away on its own. In fact, unaddressed it's a cancer on the good will and cohesion of the group. So the stakes are high.

Hint: While there's no doubt that noncompliance and deficient performance are a problem, that does not necessarily mean that the responsibility lies wholly with the person perceived to have broken the rule or failed to have kept an agreement.

Let's look over some of the potential factors in this dynamic, any number of which may be in play:

—Ambiguous Requests
Are you confident that what the accuser believes to be the understanding is the same thing that the accused understands? There's a reason for the adage: there's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip. This potential for unclarity is all the greater if the agreements are oral and not captured in writing. In any event, we may be talking about a misunderstanding or mishearing more than willful negligence or defiance.

—Undefined Flexibility
All groups I know allow for the possibility of extenuating circumstances to allow reasonable relief from commitments when people are overwhelmed by other factors in their life (compromised health, family emergency, loss of job, etc). The problem is that the limits of flexibility or how exceptions are invoked are rarely pinned down and the accuser may be interpreting their appropriate application differently than the accused. Uh oh.

—Shame & Guilt
A good bit of the paralysis that surrounds accountability relates to people's fear of feeling shame or guilt in a public forum. Some can't imagine the embarrassment of being called out; others want no part of subjecting others to something they imagine to be that painful. As such they are unwilling to take even the first steps down that road. Some don't want to impose their personal standards on others, while others can't seem to wait for an opportunity to do so. 

A lot of what's in place here relates to the role of shame and guilt in one's family of origin, and that experience is likely to be all over the map—making it damn hard to know what demons you're letting out of the box once you invoke their energy.

—Fear of Consequences
Another factor is what to do if it's determined that someone is out of account. Is moral suasion enough, or do you need a club in the closet for serious offenders? Some groups are flat out allergic to punishments (fines, say) while others seem altogether willing to go there if someone misses a chore cycle and doesn't make it up. To be sure, the backdrop in which this occurs is that the group (and the members who comprise it) always have recourse to the protection and rights extended to them by civil authorities in instances of lawbreaking and public safety, but that only happens in rare and extreme cases (thank god). 

The main point I want to make here is that you can commit to talking abut accountability without embracing a set of consequences (or, for that matter, deciding that you won't have consequences).

—Police State Anxiety
Amazingly, it is common among cooperative groups to have no one (I prefer a committee) designated to handle task monitoring, which seems weird to me. For the most part, I've come to understand this as: a) a fear of people passing judgment on each other (no one wants the Work Police knocking on their door asking where they were on the afternoon of Nov 12, while everyone else was raking leaves and getting the houses ready for winter); and b) a lack of confidence in the community's willingness to work constructively with upset—which is where they suspect conversations about noncompliance are likely to go.

As no one wants to live in a police state, the topic of accountability becomes anathema.

• • •
While I get that those are real fears, are you liking the alternative any better—where the complaining goes on behind people's backs, and others are left to shoulder more of the work to cover those doing less? Not much of a bargain, is it?

Without advocating for or against consequences, I urge groups to commit to talking about it whenever a member is viewed as being out of account. However, since we want this to be constructive, and minimally disruptive, I advocate that this be distributed among the standing committees, where each is responsible for agreements and tasks in their arena.

Then, whenever someone has a concern about noncompliance, they'd be encouraged to follow a sequence such as this (until the matter is settled):

1. Talk with the person directly.
2. Talk with the person with the help of a mutually acceptable third party (or parties).
3. Ask the relevant committee for help (with the Conflict Resolution Team backing up the committee if it gets hairy).
4. Take it to the plenary.

At each point along the way, a good faith effort should be made to accommodate the preferences of both the accuser and the accused about setting, timing, and who's present in the way of support. While these may be facilitated conversations, participation should be voluntary with no one being coerced to accept another's viewpoints or conclusions.

If it is not clear which committee's bailiwick the matter falls into, then the Conflict Resolution Team will play centerfield, handling all requests that come along until and unless they're handed off to another committee.

A big advantage of expressly giving committees the job of task monitoring in their purview is that it becomes a license to initiate conversations about work or compliance with agreements. Absent the assignment of such authority, the person who shows initiative is susceptible to being labeled a busybody. The point of this is not to embarrass or shame: it's to get information and troubleshoot at the least expensive level. Remember: we're creating cooperative culture; not recapitulating the combative, competitive culture of the mainstream.

While it's possible for a matter to go all the way to plenary (the court of last resort), that will rarely happen if committees are doing their job about compassionately talking with folks who are perceived to not be doing theirs.

1 comment:

Beth Raps said...

Laird, this is the BEST post, so useful. I find accountability trouble crops up time and again in fundraising and it is because of exactly what you say (in my humble opinion). I have not thought of a committee to deal with it, but it's a great thought.