Altering the Culture of Accountability

Altering the Culture of Accountability

By Mary Jo McGrath,Attorney at Law
Reprinted with permission from The California Educator, August/September 1996, published by the California Teacher’s Association.

The immediate focus of all administrators in education is to analyze the state budget, determine the district’s allocations, and decide whether to implement a class size reduction program. But before you are drawn too far into the maelstrom of implementation, I hope you will pause and consider the psychology of your undertaking. Operational problems can be overcome and classes will be smaller. But will you be able to meet the public’s expectation – that children will do better in school? Are you willing to be accountable?

We tend to focus on the “doingness” of what should happen to improve education through technological and curricular advances. In the meantime we have virtually ignored the “willingness” of our people to hold themselves and others accountable for the results which indicate quality education. Further, we have ignored the culture and climate in which that “willingness” arises.

Professor Edwin Bridges of Stanford University, after a career wrestling with the issue of effective performance, came to what he considers to be the key question. He writes in The Incompetent Teacher, 1992, page 182: “The challenge for scholars and practitioners alike is to find an answer to this fundamental question. ‘How do we create organizational environments in which people willingly own, rather than deny or sidestep performance problems?'”

For almost 20 years I have provided legal representation to school boards in their efforts to dismiss incompetent teachers from employment. I have always considered teacher termination to be the ultimate statement of accountability for both management and employees. I now realize that for any significant advancement to occur in the quality of education or in the enhancement of the environment in which our employees work, a transformation must occur. We must shift from a culture where accountability is punitive to one in which accountability is experienced as a opportunity for full self expression and contribution.

Currently, Accountability is a Punishment, not an Opportunity
Negative reaction to the imposition of accountability is a phenomenon discussed in the article, “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” authored by Professor Chris Argyris of the Harvard graduate schools of business and education and published in The Harvard Business Review, May/June, 1991. He states: “…[M] any professionals have extremely ‘brittle’ personalities. When suddenly faced with a situation they cannot immediately handle, they tend to fall apart …” Professor Argyris attributes this brittleness to a fear of failure experienced by people. In studies of more than 6,000 people the defensive reasoning a person uses to place the blame for failure outside of themselves is universal, with no measurable difference by country, age, sex, ethnic identity, education, wealth, power, or experience. Argyris finds that all of us design our behavior in order to remain in unilateral control, to maximize winning and minimize losing, to suppress negative feelings, and to be as rational as possible while doing all that. The purpose of this strategy is to avoid vulnerability, risk, embarrassment, and the appearance of incompetence. (Argyris, Chris, Good Communication that Blocks Learning, Harvard Business Review, July-August, 1994)

In High Output Management (Grove, A., 1985, New York: Vintage Press, 1985), the author identifies five steps to problem-solving: ignore, deny, blame others assume responsibility, and find a solution. He maintains that the process gets stuck at the “blame-others” stage. To the author’s dismay, no insight into the organizational conditions which nurture or thwart problem ownership is provided in this work or others he has reviewed.

These various authors see the blaming of others, rather than the taking of responsibility, as a defense mechanism for self protection. The statement begs the question, “What is being defended?” I believe that underneath every “smart person” is someone who is afraid of being found out as an “imposter.” I’m not saying the person is an imposter; rather, the person fears they are an imposter. After reading Professor Argyris work I examined this theories using myself as a guinea pig. I saw that even though when I went to undergraduate and law school I received good grades, I thought those grades were a fluke that could disappear at any time.

I believe there is a universal concern that sounds like, “I am faking it and today is the day ‘they” are going to figure out I do not know what I am doing.” (Of course, I believe the rest of the world does know that they are doing and I will be shunned and abandoned for my deficiencies.) Safety lies down the path of doing that which we know haw to do well, not risking new ventures which increase the likelihood of disclosure of the “imposter.”

I tracked the “imposter” into the life of Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakia’s president in 1990. In his acceptance speech, after being awarded an honorary degree from Hebrew University in Jerusalem,, he stated, “This is far from the first honorary doctorate I have received, but I accept it with the same sensation I always do: deep shame. Because of my rather sporadic eduction, I suffer from feelings of unworthiness, and so I accept this degree as a strange gift, a continuing source of bewilderment. I can easily imagine a familiar-looking gentleman appearing at any moment, snatching the diploma from my hands, taking me by the scruff of my neck, and throwing me out of the hall because it’s all been just a mistake compounded by my own audacity.” (The New York Review of Books, 1990, Nyrev, Inc.)

Though Havel attributed his feeling of unworthiness to a sporadic education, those of us who are swimming in academic degrees know better. The source of his sense of unworthiness appears to be a universal component of humanity which each of us does all in our power to keep people from discovering. What makes it so much more controlling, this sense of inadequacy, of being an “imposter,” is that we think it is unique, it must be hidden at all costs.

The investigation into our universal sense of inadequacy is being pursed in a new field of science which examines the mismatch between our genetic makeup and the modern world, called evolutionary psychology. Scholars are beginning to sketch the contours of the human mind as designed by natural selection. According to this branch of research, getting genes into the next generation was the criterion by which the human mind was designed.

TIME writer Robert Wright wrote about this branch of research stating, “People feel the thrill of victory but also the agony of defeat, not to mention pregame jitters. According to evolutionary psychology, such unpleasant feelings are with us today because they helped our ancestors get genes into the next generation. Anxiety goaded them … Sadness or dejection – after a high-profile social failure, say – led to soul-searching that might discourage repeating the behavior that led to the failure … The past usefulness of unpleasant feelings is the reason periodic unhappiness is a natural condition, found in every culture, impossible to escape.” (TIME, August 28, 1995)

This part of our minds, programmed to keep us on our toes, was never designed to be bombarded at the pace the demands of today’s society impose. It may well be the part of us that keeps the “imposter” thinking we’re worthless and striving to hide the self-perceived flaws. In hiding such “flaws” we distance ourselves from each other in fear, duck accountability, and in a reactionary fashion attribute blame to others so we won’t be found out and left behind.

What to do?
We can throw up our hands and say, “it’s in the genes, there’s nothing we can do about it” or we can realize something far more profound. It is an old adage: “Until a thing becomes what it is, it cannot change.” Implied in that adage is that once we discover where we have our foot nailed to the floor we can do something about it.

“Problems call forth our courage and wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually. When we desire to encourage the growth of human spirit, we challenge and encourage the human capacity to solve problems … It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn. As Benjamin franklin said, “Those things that hurt, instruct.'” (M. Scott Peck, M.D., The Road Less Traveled, 1978, page 16.) Given the driving force of human spirit and dignity, we can set forth to explore what is possible with this knowledge of our predisposition to blame others in order to keep our own “impostor” at bay.

What if we redefined accountability as an opportunity to learn from the natural outcome of shared vision, values, and commitment to the group’s goals and objectives put into action? Albert Einstein reminded us that “no problem can be solved rom the same consciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew.”

Margaret Wheatley, On Leadership Change, The School Administrator, January, 1995, page 20, sums up what the process of letting go of the defensive reasoning which blames others and shirks responsibility will take. She writes: “On a personal level, it’s a process of going from a clear sense of who I am, to letting in information that threatens me, to realizing the information is so important and so big that I can’t stay the same and deal with it. It means going through a period of falling apart and letting go so that I can recreate myself to work better and fit better into the environment that has pressured me to change.” This “environment that pressures me to change” can be self-generated by the creation of a vision so big it cannot be fulfilled with us remaining as we are. We are forced to change by our own commitment to what we say is worthy of our lives. We are empowered to move past the dominance of the “imposter” to put ourselves at risk for all we and our children can be.

The Governor and legislature have put a tremendous opportunity before us. Our reaction to the challenge will shape the future of education for the next decade and beyond.

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