This week, we’re doing a blog takeover by our very first podcast guest, Courtney Branson. Courtney led Square Root as VP of People from a struggling startup to most recently acquired, along with winning culture awards from Great Place To Work, Fortune, and Fast Company, just to name a few. Now she serves as a Culture Advisor where she speaks, trains, and consults on culture for startups. She was the guest in our most-streamed episode in the UNprofessional podcast. Today she talks about a topic that she gets asked about the most—toxic shaming and blaming of holding people accountable at work.
My elementary school sat in front of a junkyard. For years, I gazed in wonder at the treasures that lay beyond the chain-linked fence. In fifth grade, I finally decided to explore it with two classmates. During the journey, we found a piece of metal stretched across a ditch. Like the ten-year-olds we were, we jumped on it to see if it bounced like a trampoline. Nope. I fell, and a scrap of metal gashed my leg, leaving behind a gnarly scar. I got in trouble, but I also answered my question — the only thing beyond the fringe was scrap metal.
You may think that cutting my leg to the bone encouraged me to play it safe. Instead, the scar offers a tangible reminder of my rebel soul. Curiosity deserves to be answered.
Throughout my decade career, I’ve noticed many neither seek to ask nor seek to answer. I see folks carrying a torch for the status quo, happy to follow the rules. There’s something maddening in that to me. The status quo at work isn’t for me?a woman, a mother. And yet, I’m held accountable to it.
As a society, we use “accountability” to enforce our version of morality?right and wrong. We miss opportunities for learning and create defensive, silent, sunken workforces. When mistakes happen or new ideas proposed, the ideal outcome should be reflection + growth. But to embrace evolution would mean companies and individuals would need to let go of their prized possession, the status quo.
Questioners of the status quo, defiers of “that’s just the way it is,” find punishment and blame are the rewards for their curiosity, their experiments. In HR, it’s an ordinary experience for folks with pitchforks to demand accountability, ask for someone to mold to the norm, or bully them into their version of right. There’s only so much one individual can do to redirect that energy to empathy, reflection, and growth.
Being a rebel soul isn’t too easy right now. But it’s still a wild time to be alive. One misstep could land you at the mercy of the internet’s rule-keepers. Social media offers a unique glimpse into the underbelly of vengeance and schadenfreude that typically hides in dark corners. Toxic behaviors sit on display?spreading hate on Twitter, canceling on Instagram, denying identity on LinkedIn. Those people are in our workplaces, and they even hold positions of power. Anyone with an iota of power can wield their position to deny someone’s voice, destroy their reputation, or ultimately, fire them?all in the name of accountability.
- Using power and punishment as a response to non-egregious actions to hold someone to your version of right.
- Especially toxic if the individual was unaware of your perspective and expectations.
- Related: cancel culture; gaslighting.
Why does toxic accountability exist, and how do we reframe it at work?
Making mistakes is human. Yet, when someone missteps, it’s rubberneckers at an accident or reality TV gawkers. Witnessing something “bad” in another offers validation of one’s goodness. We’re pure as long as we’re not the ones fired, canceled, or punished for our humanness.
Not only do fellow humans relish others’ errors, but we also love the blame game. Blame gives validation to those seeking recognition, status, comparison, as well as rule-keepers craving an indictment of right and wrong. While there are situations in the world that call for an indictment, most don’t.
When I view missteps at work or home, I pause to consider 1) What consent have I received to hold this individual accountable? 2) Does my position as mom or manager give me a power advantage? 3) What responsibility (if any) do I have for this individual’s actions? The answers guide what’s next.
My approach may seem soft, but it’s rooted in lived experiences. My dad held me accountable with his belt as a child, my peers degraded failed ideas. In between blows, I felt my punishers seeking absolution, for me to confess and beg for forgiveness. They needed me to acknowledge and thank them for holding me accountable.
In none of my experiences did I have agency in the accountability. Because it’s impossible to hold someone accountable to your standards, expectations, beliefs, it’s just not how it works.
Accountability is part of a shared relationship. Imagine a meaningful relationship in your life; for me, it’s the one between my husband and me. To have accountability, we first need to establish shared purpose, expectations, and boundaries.
Start with why.
My daughter, Henley, comes to me with all sorts of questions, and we don’t stop the conversation until she’s satisfied. Last week, we had a horrifying experience learning about spiders. In solving something together, we create trust and meaning. She trusts that I’ll listen to and be honest with her. My answers tend to root themselves in my values, for example, why I’m vegan.
Our conversations instill responsibility. Henley’s agreed-upon weekly chores include feeding our animals and watering our plants. Those things are impactful to our house; she’s trusted to do them and feels empowered to do so. Once a month, she leads a neighborhood litter collection walk because she values the Earth. That’s an idea born from her soul.
It’s the same at work. When leaders instill responsibility in teams by answering the why, it’s a powerful motivator to do meaningful work. Empowered individuals believe they can make a difference, and instead of needing to be held accountable, they practice internal excellence.
And it’s a not-so-secret fact that when you try to answer the question WHY you’ll find at least one thing that doesn’t make sense. When folks feel comfortable to question and evolve the status quo?that’s when the good stuff happens.
Create expectations together.
Even when the why is established, expectations are too often unsaid, assumed.
You can’t hold someone accountable for something they didn’t agree to or don’t want.
In a relationship, if you seek monogamy, start with the dtr?defining the relationship. That puts feelings, expectations, beliefs, and a shared future on the table. It offers space for clarity and commitment?that’s when you become responsible to something, someone. Most of us have these conversations with our partners but neglect to prioritize them at work.
We need clarity and commitment to become responsible for shared expectations, outcomes, and impact.
Gracious and regular feedback matters.
But alas, people are human. They err, they fall apart, they need support.
When folks err, we’re so swift to call for accountability. Resist the urge. Instead, ask the individual to reflect. Open listening may unearth issues such as a lack of skill, a temporary circumstance, personal loss, or even leadership woes. Pinpointing the heart offers an opportunity for positive growth. Of course, sometimes it’s not a fit and like a relationship, you head toward a break-up. BUT it still doesn’t merit toxic accountability.
Holding someone accountable when they’re not capable of meeting that bar isn’t kind.
Assume the best in others.
It’s so rare that I encounter someone that doesn’t want to do a good job. Performance issues typically fall blunder to not having the right tools, experience, or manager guidance.
Unfortunately, due to workplace power structures, retribution bias comes into play. Managers choose punishment instead of rehabilitation. They retaliate, hold grudges, or fire individuals instead of coaching, supporting mental health, or finding new opportunities within the company. Toxic accountability inflicts deep wounds on self-worth, reputation, and sanity. It also means we’re using our biased, flawed version of “right” to silence someone.
Accountability of others is dangerous because our perception deceives us; we’re unreliable narrators of the events around us.
No one loves acknowledging when they’re wrong or insecure. We think how we see things is how they are. A child crying in a store, what’s your take? There are those that label the child a brat, the parent terrible. In contrast, others will see the child crying and feel empathy. If someone doesn’t perform at work, there will always be a group ready with labels?unworthy, villain, not enough.
Our sense of self matters in the conversation about accountability. When self-image and experience misalign, the incongruence sparks blame. We blame a break-up on our former partner without looking inward at our role. We blame an individual for not being up to snuff without considering the cultural or leadership structures in place.
At times, we react to people in ways that we don’t even understand. If you worked through the loss of a family member and someone else doesn’t, your reaction is rooted in deep emotions. Holding someone accountable becomes about you, not them. I’ve seen this throughout the pandemic, the desire to hold others accountable for making different choices.
How do we combat a world that craves control?
At the beginning of the pandemic, while grace overflowed, so did uncertainty. Time waxes on, grace fades, but uncertainty remains. There’s an upspring of calls for accountability and rigid processes to gain control as a counter to the unknown. Folks crave visibility, they track their effort, judging work by time in, not impact, and they question how individuals seen as subpar, beneath them, stay employed. That’s the problem.
It’s not on us to judge others, to measure their worth. For that, I eschew toxic accountability. Its pervasive use in society creates folks scared of speaking, scared of opting into the hard conversations, afraid of getting it wrong. Feeling attacked, dismissed, held accountable is not when growth happens.
No one grows from defensiveness. — Tiffany Jana.
Having Boundaries Is Different Than Accountability.
Crucial to growth is boundaries. Boundaries are a good thing, an individual thing. When you hold a boundary, it’s not about blame or shame. It’s holding firm to what you need. I have a no yelling rule, at work, in relationships, in parenting.
Within a friend group, there’s an individual that has not shown personal responsibility for his actions. He oscillates between lobbing insults at me and apologizing, all while drinking. Everyone throws up their hands to say that’s who he is; they can’t hold him accountable. And, I agree. We don’t have consent. It’s neither my responsibility nor theirs to hold him accountable, but I can remove him from my life. That’s a boundary. I have a choice, and the choice is no jerks allowed.
Individuals have their own boundaries, and companies need the same. Values tend to be the vehicle by which companies identify the behaviors that are and aren’t acceptable. But, identification isn’t enough; they need to infuse into every fiber. Values inform every decision?hiring, norms, expectations, and letting folks go. Do you reward collaboration or competitiveness? Do you punish speaking up or staying silent? It’s the company version of deciding you’re not dating cheaters, narcissists, or jerks.
Values are the boundaries; they craft shared purpose, an opportunity for individuals to opt-in or out. They move you forward.
Build your bar of excellence.
Personal responsibility nurtures empowerment. I spent so much of my life with a rule book, one developed from a strict childhood. That rule book drenched me in stress and anxiety. Instead of living by a rule book written by everyone but me, I decided that I would set my bar of excellence and take responsibility for my choices.
Deciding to be responsible for your vision of life is empowering. Otherwise, we’d all live in victimhood. The victim mindset tempts us to roll heads instead of approaching individuals with curiosity or reflection. It breeds toxic accountability and convinces us that we can rule on others as good or bad without understanding and taking responsibility for our role in the process.
We’re all so different. In taking responsibility for my excellence, I spend 30-minutes a day on reflection. I revisit memories that influence the way I interact with the world. I’m terrified of authority. It dates back to my childhood experiences with blame and punishment. When I’m being held accountable, there’s a trigger, an intense feeling of wanting to apologize, withdraw, and hide in my room. I took on shame for making my parents upset; I still feel responsible for everyone’s feelings. I worry if everyone is having a good time, feels included, feels heard. There’s magic in that as my career lies in creating company culture, but my values and strengths have sinister, hard-won roots.
Being held accountable by someone that lived a different life sucks. To act as if we know another intimately enough to decide what someone should do. We don’t know the full story of their life?the childhood, values, boundaries, religion, experiences with blame, and trust.
Lastly, we don’t all have access to the same things. I benefit from white + educational privilege, financial security, therapy, and supportive people in my life. Next time you feel the heart-pumping desire to hold someone accountable, try being a supportive person, curious, a rebel soul.
p.s. I’ll never forget the school nurse the day I cut my leg. She was so mad at me for getting blood on the walls; she never asked where the blood was coming from. Don’t be that person.
Follow her on LinkedIn: Courtney Branson