Lunching out on accountability

I recently left a comment on Dwight Towers blog. It turned out to be quite a long one and had the makings of a post in its own right. So I’ve taken it and made it even longer. The problem as posed by Dwight:

there are also some people [and their track record goes on for years in different groups] who persistently don’t do what they say they will, and “lunch out” repeatedly. And in the NVDA/non-hierarchical subcultures I’ve seen, this is tolerated far too much. We have no real accountability structures [and it does my nut].

Accountability and leadership

Dwight’s right. Accountability is a huge issue in many groups, and especially those at the non-hierarchical end of the scale. There’s a real fear of it in some non-hierarchical groups because it smacks of leadership and leadership is a dirty word. Without leadership how do you hold someone to account for anything (“who am I to appoint myself the person that holds others to account?”)?

There’s an association of leadership with leaders – people that take power over others, or are given it by flawed (s)election processes. Groups that eschew those processes in favour of, say, consensus, can also eschew the very concept of leadership, leaving themselves vulnerable to lack of accountability and a lot more besides, including the “lunch out” culture Dwight describes.

That kind of thinking can seriously paralyse groups and whole movements. Ironically it can lead to more hierarchy and less accountability because the more “sorted” people will often just get together and make stuff happen cutting out those they consider unreliable altogether. This in turn leads to accusations of elites, hidden agendas and so on.

(As always) ask yourself why

But anyone that consistently volunteers and consistently fails to deliver has some kind of issue. They don’t just get out of bed and say to themselves “today I’ll go and bugger up a meeting”. The only way we can solve the problem is to find out what that issue is and put in place appropriate support.

Possible issues might include:

  • genuinely wanting to help but not receiving adequate support to do so. There’s a classic problem in many groups and organisations of lack of support for volunteers (and in some cases even staff). It’s a sink or swim approach, and not everyone sees that kind of water as enticing. People are busy changing the world. They don’t have the time to babysit other people (in all probability, no-one babysat them…) and there’s no sympathy to spare. Besides, being able to do a task doesn’t make me automatically able to show others how it’s done. All very understandable, but not a sustainable approach to working in groups
  • poor consensus process leading to people “agreeing” to things they don’t really believe in, so once away from the pressure of the meeting they let it slide. Sound familiar? This can happen for several reasons
    • poor process can lead to very long meetings. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of meetings in which, after 3 hours people would happily agree to hack off their own arm if they thought it would get you home this side of midnight… I exaggerate, but you get the point
    • it can also be caused by peer pressure. This in turn can be aggravated by some of those tools becoming increasingly common in some groups’ practice of consensus – handsignals, temperature checks. Useful in the right moment, used in the right way. But they can bring an unwelcome “weight of majority” that we’re not all assertive enough to resist
    • and of course poor listening can turn a half-hearted expression of interest into a firm commitment to take on an action point in a very short time indeed, leaving our half-hearted group member trapped into a task they aren’t committed to
  • lack of adequate summaries throughout a meeting, alone or in combination with poor minute taking allow people to leave a meeting with a task which later they realise they don’t really understand, and if there’s no between meeting support system in place….. They can also leave a meeting with a task they hadn’t realised they’d volunteered for. More on that below
  • hypercritical groups – people would rather lunch them out than risk doing the task and being told in precise detail that they’ve done it wrong. Of course these judgements (“you’ve done it wrong/to an unacceptably low standard”) are often very subjective. “You’ve done it wrong” may just mean “you’ve not done it as I would have”. In the long-term this pattern of behaviour means that people simply stop volunteering (and possibly stop attending). Another manifestation of this can be a culture in which not volunteering for tasks leads to criticism, so everyone feels pressured to take something on even though they are fully aware they can’t deliver
  • this is often combined with lack of sympathy to people’s commitments. The ‘lightweight syndrome’ – changing the world is the most important thing and your kids/partner/sick relative/job/time off/health problems aren’t recognised excuses in our hard-core group, so get with the programme and take on the task
  • poor interpersonal dynamics in a group can lead to people behaving in this way as one way of attracting the attention of the group
  • volunteering people is another problem – it’s easy to say “Matthew will do that. I’ll ask him later”. Matthew gets minuted as taking it on, but does he ever get told that? If he does get told, does he have any real sense of ownership of the decision or the task? In a month’s time when he faces the ire of the group for failing to deliver (surprise, surprise!), does anyone actually remember he was volunteered rather than volunteering himself?

Years of poor meetings creates a culture where lunching out on tasks, and many other problems, are at least acceptable if not the norm, so there’s a real need to find ways of moving forwards.

What’s the solution?

Possible strategies include –

  • air the issues – easy to say and hard to do, but part of the problem is often that no-one’s willing to break a group’s bad habits. You have to start somewhere and whispered conversations in the pub, or rants to your partner or housemates when you get home from a meeting don’t make any difference (except to your blood pressure). If you can raise the issue and deal with it sympathetically, great! Of course raising the issue in a ‘pointing the finger of blame’ way won’t help in the slightest
  • ask rather than assume – don’t guess why it might be happening. If you’re not sure ask the person or persons involved. It could be a quiet chat outside of a meeting. Be calm, listen carefully, and above all be willing to hear that some responsibility may lie with the group. There’s at least 2 sides to every story
  • offer mentoring or buddying between experienced and less experienced people (or other appropriate support around roles and tasks). We have to find the capacity to coach and mentor volunteers, and offer any other support they need if we’re to build long-term movements for change. And of course, if we don’t then we create an informal hierarchy of the skilled – those willing to dive in to the water and swim
  • set clear expectations in meetings (including deadlines, expected quality of the outcome, systems of accountability) using a decision-making process that people are actually committed to
  • recap after each agenda item to ensure that people are happy with the tasks that (you think) they’ve agreed to. Watch for body language, facial expressions, or tone of voice that may contradict their agreement to take on a task and be willing to voice that difference. Recap again at the end of the meeting and make a point of getting in touch with anyone who had to leave early, especially if you know that the minutes take a while to get sent round
  • distribute accurate notes of the meeting quickly – make them detailed enough to genuinely remind people what they’ve agreed to. If tasks have short deadlines think about using more than one method of communication. It only takes a work crisis,or a hardware problem at home cutting of the broadband and someone may not see the minutes in time. Pick up the phone if need be
  • create a culture of constructive feedback for the ongoing learning and development of the group. If you’re involved in preparing the agenda, suggest that the group sets aside the final 5 minutes of each meeting and start evaluating them to set an example. Take on board the points raised and make changes. Extend that culture bit by bit, perhaps asking for feedback on a task you took on. Perhaps offering a few words of constructive feedback on a task in private until the group is happy to have these conversations in public
  • have a realistic expectation of what the group can achieve. This stops the group demanding more of people than they are in a position to deliver
  • see the whole person – remember that for many people their activism is one facet of their lives, so put it in perspective and make room for socialising, fun and other types of meeting that don’t create such a weight of expectation and action points. Be grateful for what they can offer. If you choose to offer more that’s your choice and shouldn’t be a judgement on others
  • and if nothing else works and the problem does simply lie with an individual who has an unreaslistic view of their ability to deliver on promises, be brave enough to say so when they volunteer for a crucial task and gently explain the problems it can cause and the resentment that can creep in. Value the contribution they do make by attending meetings and any roles they take on during meetings

Supporting groups to tackle the problem

If you support groups with this problem as a volunteer or staff member you could do worse than to consciously set a good example. This might involve:

  • delivering on the tasks you agree to take on
  • offering a sympathetic ear to struggling volunteers
  • asking for feedback on your work and acting on it
  • offering constructive feedback to the group
  • getting good quality minutes of meetings and events out within 48 hours of the meeting
  • mentoring people through tasks they want support in
  • biting the bullet and asking the uncomfortable question – why is this happening?
  • facilitating the odd meeting for the group and including clear expectations on minute taking, detailed descriptions of the action points that need taking on, summaries and so on
  • and of course using your network communications to highlight groups who are avoiding or tackling the issue successfully

On a larger scale there’s a need to step back and look at the model of group you promote, consciously and unconsciously. Does that in any way send out a message? Does it encourage healthy group dynamics? If you don’t explicitly promote a model of healthy groups people will fall back on the norm, and the norm is not great.

I don’t mean to make it sound easy. Often these problems are entrenched. One person’s ‘failure’ to complete tasks has met with an unsympathetic response. That’s caused more tension and the problems deepen and grow. Left for months or years this can seriously damage a group. However, the standard response of tolerating it and hoping it goes away (or more specifically hoping the ‘problem person’ goes away) will not work. If the original problem lay in the group even if that person leaves the problem remains.

Take that first step…