Tough Feedback and Reactive Behaviors
We all have a hard time accepting tough feedback. We all want to be seen for our best qualities, and we want to defend, explain and justify our weaknesses. When avoiding accountability, we typically engage in one or more of these unconscious, reactive-brain behaviours:
- isolation (running away), stonewalling, passive-aggressive retreat/withdrawal
- the PR spin (for example, we are told we are not delegating well, but rather than changing, we ‘sell’ ourselves by pointing out how excellent our results are)
Given that these reactions are so common, how do we change and begin taking more accountability? In our work with clients, we invite them to ask themselves one simple question to cut through all the layers of image management: ‘What’s my part in this?’ This question, implemented at scale, supports the development of growth-mindset, psychologically-safe organisational cultures.
The Consequences of Denial and Disownership
We deny accountability as a reactive-brain reflex to protect ourselves from experiencing painful feelings, or ‘distress’. As we habitualise denial, defensiveness and blame as a life strategy for dealing with emotional pain, we increase our level of distress intolerance. The greater our distress intolerance, the more likely we will use denial and defensiveness as a means of coping with the distress, and the less possibility we have for growth. Simultaneously, we also make it very challenging for others to feel safe enough to take accountability for their actions in our company. And the lower the level of accountability, the lower the level of psychological safety and growth as a team culture.
Sometimes in my work a client will say semi-accusingly, ‘This growth work is uncomfortable!’ And sometimes I get the sense they are expecting me to say, ‘Oh, okay, then let’s back off.’ But instead I smile and say, ‘Great! That means you’re really doing the work.’
There is nothing wrong with being in emotional discomfort. In fact, you really need to expect emotional discomfort in the growth process. It comes with the territory and is a part of the challenge. Growth work is challenging, nothing short of a hero’s journey. You are overcoming the primitive response of fight or flight, the conditioned response to run from unpleasant feelings. You are choosing to stay conscious and values-aligned in the face of emotional discomfort. You are making your emotional world object to you, not becoming subject to it. This is an evolution, a process of real growth.
Overcoming Blame and Promoting Personal Accountability
Asking ‘What’s my part in this?’ is a critical beginning to overcoming our disownership reflex. It’s useful to know that when we ask it, our emotional discomfort will increase. Rather than worrying that something’s wrong because we feel worse, we can lean into the discomfort and know that we’re growing. ‘What’s my part in this?’ shifts our focus away from what everyone else around us is doing wrong and onto our own behaviour. It marks the beginning of growth.
Tracy Furey, Head of Global Communications Oncology at Novartis, admitted to me how not being willing to ask this question created a lot of misery for her. She explained, ‘Prior to Novartis, I spent three years at my former employer feeling bitter and blaming everyone else for not getting the recognition, trust and support I thought I deserved. I withdrew into myself and was really lost. I behaved passive-aggressively towards people, particularly my family. It took me that long to recognise how much of my unhappiness was my responsibility because of how I reacted to the situation.
‘It was a terrible period of my life. And when I look back on it, I have so much regret because had I looked at myself and taken responsibility for bettering my situation, I could have gotten through it without the level of stress, anxiety and depression I went through. It didn’t have to be that way.
‘I held onto so many unresolved feelings. One time I was talking with a friend about it, and I had a moment of insight when I realised that everything coming out of my mouth was blaming others. I became disgusted with myself. That was the moment when I said, “It was you the whole time.” I just owned it.
‘Although that was difficult to face, it freed me to know it was my fault. It gave me the consciousness and power to look at my behaviour more objectively and to avoid my misguided behaviours in the future. Without that ownership, I never could have grown.’
Tracy’s experience is common. Blaming others is an unconscious pain management process. We blame others to feel okay about ourselves, but ironically we are actually poisoning ourselves.
Success Stories and The Importance of Self-Awareness
It’s typical for leaders to lack the self-awareness to answer the accountability question for themselves. They tell us, ‘I’m genuinely curious to see my part in this. But I just don’t know what it is, so I’ll ask my team members.’
These leaders often have a history of denial, blame and even punishment of those brave enough to give them critical feedback. This means there is no psychological safety, and team members have no incentive to be honest. So it’s not unusual that when these leaders ask their team to hold them accountable and help them grow, their team responds with image-management platitudes. ‘No really, you’re doing great.’ This is why it’s so important for leaders to work on their self-awareness and to the best of their ability develop the insight and clarity to at least partially arrive at their own answers to ‘What’s my part in this?’ This enables them to come to their team with an already vulnerable insight by sharing and owning their shadow in front of the team. This does wonders for psychological safety and the possibilities for an honest team environment.
But don’t expect instant results. If your team has mostly defensive, denial-based experiences with you, one single vulnerable experience is not going to be enough. You will need to be patient and keep doing the ownership work. It will change in time.