Shared understandings key to accepted norms, pastor argues
By Nathan Good
In my work as a pastor, teacher, and leadership coach, one of the most common questions I am asked is, “How can I encourage accountability?” Businesses build new roles and systems of management. Churches review statements of faith and discipline practices.
Teachers get trained in new methods and theories of classroom management. In all these areas, what worked a generation or two ago no longer seems to work. I was at a conference recently that had a Panera Bread café close by. At the time, if you registered for a free subscription, you were given three months of free coffee. Sign me up! After our session ended at 1:30 pm, I scooted out to get my coffee.
Following another person through the door, I headed towards the kiosk to order. I heard someone behind the counter saying something but assumed they were talking to the person ahead of me. As I got to the kiosk, I heard a loud and angry “Harrumph!” Turning around, I saw a girl behind the counter, in her early twenties, glaring at me. Clearly annoyed she barked, “I said we are closing at two and aren’t taking any more orders.”
All I wanted was my free cup of coffee. I quickly glanced at my watch, knowing it was only a few minutes past 1:30. I walked towards the counter to ask if I could at least get my free cup of coffee. Nearing the counter, this employee rudely explained that the next shift of workers had not come in, so they were closing early. I asked whether I could still get my free cup of coffee since they had a half hour until the time she had just said they were closing.
She berated me for the request while the other person behind the counter went and got me a cup of coffee. The other customer said, “This seems very rude, could I please speak to your manager?” She pointed towards the corner where we saw at least three other people already in line to speak with him.
Over the past fifty years, our culture has shifted from modernism to postmodernism. One of the clear shifts is how people decide what is right and wrong. In the 1990s there was a lot of talk in the church about moral relativism and how it was destroying our culture. But it is not that people today have no morals. Instead, there is a different set of ideals for choosing the right action.
Much of western ethics since the 1800s has been based on Immanuel Kant’s ideas. This German philosopher thought there are basic moral laws that can be found and applied to every situation. In the past century, this was called into question.
Ethics now look more closely at the situation. People’s stories matter as well as knowing who holds power. Right and wrong are decided based on what is going on, not simply on some moral law. The Apostle Paul engaged in situational ethics when he said in Galatians 5, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Most readers will relate to the manager or customer in the story above. We wonder how this young woman could be so rude. We think Panera Bread needs better systems of accountability for its employees. But, if she was asked to work until noon and had already stayed an extra hour and a half, this woman was holding her manager accountable. Perhaps she wasn’t doing it well, but this is a story of accountability being practiced in ways we may not expect.
It is not that accountability is dead. In fact, it is practiced often. But it looks very different from the past. So the question becomes, “How do we encourage healthy accountability in the culture that we live in today?”
People often respond in one of two ways when the topic of accountability comes up. Some become guarded and tell stories of people being kicked out of groups or mistreated by angry leaders enforcing the rules. Others boldly talk about a lack of rules today and that we need to be stricter. Both have the same flawed idea about what accountability is.
Healthy accountability is focused on the growth of the person. Healthy accountability holds someone responsible for their commitments and actions in a way that empowers them to grow into the future. There is a place for discipline, and even punishment, for the good of an ordered society. But this falls short of encouraging and empowering the person to grow. Accountability must include more than simply enforcing the rules.
I use the material in this article for a one-hour workshop on accountability. At this point in the presentation, I take a five-minute break for participants to think about two questions.
- Where have you grown in the past year?
- Who helped you grow in that way?
I have presented this material enough to guess peoples’ answers. Those who help us grow are the ones who stick with us through tough times. They are those who ask curious questions when things are unclear. They are those who love us unconditionally.
Rarely do we grow because someone yelled at us or told us we didn’t belong. Often, we grow because someone helped us set clear expectations and then lovingly called us to a higher standard than what we already had.
Many from a Judeo-Christian background are familiar with Psalm 1 which begins, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord.” I memorized this psalm as a boy.
It is not that accountability is dead. In fact, it is practiced often. But it looks very different from the past. So the question becomes, “How do we encourage healthy accountability in the cul- ture that we live in today?”
We were taught that to be like a tree planted by streams of water we needed to stay away from bad people. In light of Jesus’ ministry, I always struggled with this teaching. What if we turn Psalm 1 on its head, though? Jesus was less concerned with being blessed and instead focused on being a blessing.
Looking at Psalm 1 this way raises some questions. When people walk in step with me are they blessed? When people stand in the way of life I have taken, are they heading towards destruction or health? Those who keep company with me, are they growing or becoming stagnant? Psalm 1 helps us see that we become like those we are around. So, for me to hold others accountable, first I need to grow. The best way to help others improve is to be present with them in their struggles. This is how Jesus lived and it is what he calls us to as well.
Tafadzwa Bete Sasa presents this view of accountability in her Tedx talk Accountability Is a Love Language. Sasa failed several classes in her first year of college. In danger of losing her scholarship, she went to her advisor and shared her grades. Her advisor asked, “What happened?” Sasa responded that she didn’t know. Her advisor gave her the weekend to think it over and come back with a plan to make sure it didn’t happen again.
Out of this experience, Sasa offers two questions and a skill that is essential to accountability conversations. The first question is simply, “What happened?” This allows the person to admit and take ownership of the problem. Next, the one asking must use the skill of active listening. The person being confronted expects judgment. Talking too soon can feel like an attack, making the person become defensive.
When they are defensive, they are unable to think well about what happened. Listening allows them to notice problem behaviors and dig deeper to develop self-awareness of what is happening inside of them. After they have done this, the second question is, “So what’s the plan?” In her presentation, Sasa says, “It is good intentions with no plan that keeps people in destructive cycles.” Accountability practiced with patient care is a form of love.
To practice accountability in this way, though, there must be shared expectations. Maurice and Cynthia Phipps talk about setting expectations in their article “Group Norm Setting.” Every group develops normal ways of being together. They suggest, “Norms in a group will evolve even if nothing purposeful is done, but of course, these norms might be negative.” When norms are set through rules by an authority figure, people tend to find ways to get around them. But when leaders work with the group to create expectations everyone can agree on, those in the group tend to hold one another accountable.
More business leaders are inviting employees to write their own job descriptions. Churches are moving away from power structures and asking the congregation to discern major decisions together. Schools are using teaching methods that engage students in setting expectations for behavior.
Amid a changing culture, accountability still matters. I am where I am today because, rather than give up on me, I had leaders hold me accountable in these ways. We bless others when we help them grow and become better versions of themselves. It is an act of love to give people space to figure out what went wrong and how they will do better next time. As followers of Jesus, Christian business owners and leaders can lead the way in creating healthy structures of accountability for tomorrow.
Nathan Good pastors Swamp Mennonite Church in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. He also works as a leadership coach.