Ambrose Pierce, a nineteenth-century humorist, defined responsibility, as “A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbor. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star.” Being accountable means accepting responsibility for who we are, and for our character, personalities, attitudes, and weaknesses. Even for our happiness.
The actor Tom Selleck, one of the national spokespersons for the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition, likes to say, “I could spend 20 years in therapy and never find anything to blame my parents for.” Accountable people are not blamers. This is becoming an increasingly valued characteristic as it is becoming more rare. Charles J. Sykes in “A Nation of Victims” was one of the first to call our attention to a new American penchant to whine and evade: “Increasingly, Americans act as if they received a lifelong indemnification from misfortune and a contractual release from personal responsibility.”
In contrast, when things go wrong, or not as right as they would have liked, accountable people look for what they could have done differently. Accountable people are in control because they acknowledge the cause-effect relationship between their actions and attitudes and the actions and attitudes of others. If someone reacts to us with hostility, confusion, or cynicism, we should ask ourselves if there is a way of approaching that person that would have created a more positive reaction. This doesn’t mean we let the other people off the hook for their conduct and character, accountable people hold others accountable as well. But blame is not the goal — doing it better the next time is.
While teaching at Loyola Law School I prepared a simulation problem for my negotiation class — with a bit of a twist. The twist was that in the private instructions given to each party, I instructed one side to deliberately seek to annoy the other negotiator by pushing “hot buttons.” The “to be annoyed” side was not informed of this, but instead was told that reaching a settlement was of paramount importance to the client. The assignment for that side was, in effect, “don’t walk away from the negotiation without making a deal.”
In one case I matched a male and female student. I instructed the male to make sexist remarks, to be condescending, and strategically use terms like “honey” and “sweetheart.” As anticipated, the female was furious. She complained that her opponent was offensive and it was unfair to grade her on the negotiating result (which was not very favorable to her client) because she was instructed to settle, regardless — when she would rather have walked out in response to her opponent’s chauvinistic attitude. When I told her that the opposing counsel had instructions to act offensively, she got even madder — at me. I asked her if she had known ahead of time that her opponent was deliberately going to try to upset her by using sexism as a technique would it have changed the way she approached the assignment. She said of course it would have, that if she knew what he was trying to do she wouldn’t have let the comments bother her.
Insight! An accountable person isn’t a victim. In approaching a task, she accepts the personality quirks and offensive mannerisms of other people as part of the problem. Had I told this student from the beginning that her task was to negotiate effectively with a sexist, she would have handled the problem more effectively. When you have a job to do, you can’t walk away just because the other person is irrational or obnoxious. Your assignment is not to negotiate with a person who is obstructing your goal by being irrational; your assignment is to negotiate a favorable settlement with an irrational person. When we characterize our task this way, the things that might prevent us from doing a good job are simply treated an inherent part of the problem. Can a teacher teach kids who come to school tired, unprepared and unmotivated? It is difficult, of course, but that is the task. The materials we select and the techniques we choose should take into account all the obstacles that are likely to hinder our performance. If we can, we remove the disruptive influences. If we can’t, we work with them. Complaining doesn’t help.
This attitude of accountability says, “I can make a situation work even if I have to deal with unfavorable circumstances.” Part of my job is to cope with a boss who is abusive or gives unclear instructions. If I want to preserve my marriage, I have to deal constructively with a mother-in-law who is critical of everything I do. Here’s a good technique of dealing with very difficult people: pretend they have a brain tumor. Assume that they can’t help it. A person with Tourette’s syndrome spontaneously and uncontrollably utters profanities. If you knew this would you be personally offended by the next outburst? Hopefully not. You would take it in stride. Once you accept difficulties as part of the landscape, you can deal with them more effectively and thus become more accountable.
When we look at accountability this way, it is a source of empowerment — and one very much needed by many young people who are convinced that they have no control of their lives.