This is the second of the two-part article.
In my university classes, I typically group the students in teams of four for the class project. Once, I asked everyone individually and anonymously to report what was their individual contribution (in percentage) to the class project. I expected the average student contribution to be 25% and the aggregate team contribution to be 100%. But the contributions added up to 139%. This happens because we believe we contribute more than we really do. In my research, I also found that we trust people who contribute at least as much as we do, and we don’t trust those who contribute less than us. Being accountable means that we contribute no less than the other person. It also means that we demand of ourselves more than we demand of others, that we hold ourselves to standards that are not lower than the standards we hold the others to, and that overall we give more than we take.
One morning, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I heard that the number of cases in Texas had declined 60% on the local television affiliate. Five minutes later, in the national program of the same network, I heard that the number of cases increased 81%. How could it be? I didn’t even touch the TV remote! I looked for the source of information and found it on the CDC’s website. As it turned out, both were correct. The number of cases in Texas declined 60% over the last month but increased 81% over the last week. Why did they give different snapshots of the same data source? Both were using the data that supported their position. The local affiliate supported the governor’s decision to ban mask mandates (hence used the decline as supporting data). At the same time, the national program called for everyone to get vaccinated (and used the increase as supporting data). Being accountable means you provide all the information, including information that does not support your conclusion. It also means having the ability (and willingness) to say, “I don’t know,” or “I’m not sure.” It will also help you keep an open mind.
We often don’t give complete feedback. I separate two types of feedback: positive feedback is feedback about positive things you did, while negative feedback is feedback about bad things you did (not feedback given in a bad way). Here is something I want you to consider: positive feedback makes you feel better. Negative feedback makes you better. Why do we refrain from providing negative feedback, even though it would help the other person get better? We try to avoid making the other person feel bad, we avoid the awkwardness of delivering negative feedback, we “kick the can down the road” to make this someone else’s problem, and we try to avoid litigation as a result of that negative feedback. But we are not doing the other person (or the organization) any favor by that. Being accountable means giving real, honest feedback, even when it is uncomfortable to give. It also means not using statements like “other people told me that” or “other people complained that,” but rather owning the feedback you deliver. If other people want to give you feedback, I will encourage it, but I will own the feedback I give you.
Trust and trustworthiness are reciprocal. When you behave in a trustworthy way, you will earn my trust, and I will trust you. But if I trust you and show you that I trust you, you will behave in a trustworthy way to avoid the cognitive dissonance of knowing that someone trusts you to a higher level than you think you should be trusted. You then work hard to justify the trust I have in you. We typically find ourselves “stuck” in one of two cycles: the trust-trustworthy cycle or the distrust-untrustworthy cycle. Being accountable means that you start with trust or with trustworthiness. It means that you start behaving in a more trustworthy way than the level of trust others have in you justifies. It also means that you trust people a little more than their demonstrated trustworthiness level warrants. When you do those, you tip the balance in favor of the trust-trustworthiness cycle and away from the distrust-untrustworthiness cycle.