Imagine a pandemic, a crumbling American economy, and a huge outcry for more equity, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace. Yes, this all happened last year. We are only beginning to create new awareness, systems and structures that have the potential to create long term changes for our learning, growth and healing instead of division and harm.
A landmark study in 2016 in the Harvard Business Review by Frank Dobbin, PhD, professor of sociology at Harvard University, and Alexandra Kalev, PhD, associate professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University, found “the positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two.”
To create a workplace and world where everyone can thrive and is living in greater harmony with the planet, it will require new standards of compassionate accountability.
In the last 10 years, I have served as a learning architect and leadership development consultant at companies such as LinkedIn, Pixar, Bank of the West, Intuit, etc. I have assisted senior leadership to positively impact company culture with inclusive manager development programs, supporting high performance teams, coaching and encouraging effective communication. Accountability training is an important part of all the roles and programs I deliver to clients. I found there was an essential piece missing from the accountability conversations folks were having: compassion.
In my experience, we must have trust and psychological safety to create meaningful change and therefore support a culture of accountability. If there is a lack of personal responsibility and authenticity, there is often little psychological safety and agreements will continually be broken, which leads to no accountability. Psychological safety is defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.” Psychological safety was one of the most important behaviors identified by Google’s Project Aristotle for high performing teams and based on the research of Amy Edmonson.
What does compassion, psychological safety and accountability all have in common? They are the three essential ingredients for compassionate accountability. Instead of calling people “out” when we are identifying a problem, gathering more information, stating a need, or even communicating a misunderstanding, we want to call people in, compassionately and thoughtfully.”
What is compassionate accountability? It is a term I am defining as achieving what you agreed to with care and directness while problem-solving together to chart a shared path forward.
What is difficult about having an accountability conversation?
Our need for belonging. Yep, it is a biological one and is just as important as our need for clean water, food and shelter. Accountability requires that we speak up to make changes and/or to hold actions responsible, and this isn’t always received well. We fear that by speaking up and sharing our truth, we may lose our status, social capital and influence, and/or be excluded from group in which we so deeply want to belong.
Why do we fear speaking up? These are the answers I normally hear from participants of the training I deliver.
- “I want people to like me.”
- “I don’t want conflict.”
- “I am afraid that what I say won’t be heard.”
- “I fear there will be unpleasant consequences and punishment at work”
Let’s imagine that you are sitting in a meeting, and you just observed your colleague Tim talk over and then take credit for your colleague Samantha’s contribution to the problem being discussed. Samantha, who identifies as a Black, LGBTQIA, cis gendered woman, gave a look of disdain but didn’t speak up. Here is a simple framework to call in this act of exclusion using the compassionate accountability framework.
How to create a culture of compassionate accountability
Be direct. Restate what you heard them saying using reflective listening. “Hey Tim, can we talk for a few minutes? I heard you say this in the meeting just now with Samantha. Am I getting this correct?”
Ask for clarification. “Could you say that one more time? Can you share what you mean by that statement?”
Acknowledge feelings. Express empathy and compassion. “It sounds like you are really passionate about this idea you shared.” or “I imagine you felt angry, frustrated, concerned…”
Share impact and request. “I imagine you didn’t realize this when you said it, but when you spoke over Samantha and then restated exactly what she said, it seemed like you were taking credit for her idea as your own. In the future, I invite you to show more acknowledgement of others’ contributions and make sure to share the air space so that everyone’s voices are heard equally.”
Create a new agreement. We all have been the initiators of subtle acts of exclusion consciously or unconsciously. These are common experiences in the workplace, and we are all learning how to be better listeners, to take personal responsibility and to create systems that support more psychological safety.
If we want behaviors to shift, we need to find mutual agreements and then create an accountability process. For example, your agreement as a group can be that any person in the group is free to say something like, “Hey you’re interrupting Samantha or so and so, and I want to hear what they have to say.”
Your agreement can include the necessity of a response from the micro aggressor, which can be as simple as, “Thank you for pointing that out.” Such an expression of gratitude, rather than defensiveness or shutting down, conveys that you care and are willing to learn, and the dialogue as a whole indicates the willingness to bring biases to the surface and make a shift as a group.
You can get verbal agreement from the group that you are going to practice this in meetings for the next month and then check in and see how it is going. This creates a system for accountability.
“Calling in” people is a delicate process, and we have to be direct with care to avoid shame or blame that may cause the other to become defensive. Ultimately, you don’t have control over how the person responds to your calling in, but it is important to speak up or the behavior will never change. When we speak up, we are inviting transformation and a new pattern of communication and relating that reduces harm to ourselves and others.
Accountability is compassionate when you set standards for acceptable behavior and walk with people after they make mistakes.
Would you like to cultivate a culture of compassionate accountability in your organization? Book Carley for speaking on this topic today!
This article originally posted on Virginia Human Resources Today