Thursday, June 05, 2014

Punishment vs Accountability

Do you know the difference between punishment and accountability consequences?

I didn't. At least not until recently.

I was taught that if you did something "wrong," you were punished. It's a lesson I think most of us learn as kids. Misbehave and you'll be punished. When we become adults, that ingrained lesson lingers. We think of our boss "punishing" us when we are late or sometimes even our spouse "punishing" us when we fail to do something.  The consequence of our less than ideal behavior is a punishment. In fact, we even "punish" ourselves. How many times have you blown a diet, only to punish yourself by saying you will never eat sugar again?

Consequence equals punishment.

The old lesson dies hard. Very hard.

But thanks to Dov Baron, my mentor and friend, I began to reframe my thoughts.

I've come to realize that a punishment is something imposed on us from the outside. It may--or may not--have anything to do directly with whatever it is we have failed to do. This stems from our earliest training. If you ran into the street, your mother might have yanked you back and given you a swat on the bottom. You were punished for running in the street, but being swatted and running in the street really don't have anything to do with each other per se. It's just that's how your mother decided to impart a certain lesson.

Or think about a child who won't eat dinner and is sent to the corner. Sitting in a corner and refusing to eat peas aren't absolutely linked. Again, it's just how your parents decided to teach a lesson about food and eating.

As we get older, the mantra becomes "Let the punishment fit the crime," so missing a curfew means getting grounded, for example. But still and all, punishments rarely address the subject of accountability. They simply are negative consequences imposed on us by an authority. If punishment were truly effective, there would be no repeat offenders. And our jails give lie to that.

Which brings me to accountability and consequences. Accountability means that I take full responsiblity for my actions--all of my actions, good or bad, right or wrong, foolish or wise. I and I alone am responsible for them.

Now I can hear the objections already:  What about things outside my control? What if, as happened to me today, I said I would send a file to someone and my email server went down. How can I be accountable for that?

Well, I'm not accountable for the failure of the email server. But I am accountable for the fact that the file didn't get where it was supposed to be at the time it was supposed to be there.

And here's where the idea of consequences comes to play. I am still accountable for the file transfer, regardless of the email situation. I am must hold myself accountable with consequences for my failure to do so on time even though it was "impossible" because of circumstances outside my control.

I realize this is a challenging concept...and not a particularly fun one because it eliminates every possible excuse and requires a consequence for every failure.

I can hear you again--this is crazy.  If I can't do something, I can't do something so why should I punish myself for something I couldn't do?

And that's where the difference between punishment and accountability consequences comes in. If I were simply going to punish myself for not having sent the file on time because the server was down, I might make myself drink my coffee black for a week, or work out for an extra hour or any number of unpleasant things designed to be a punishment. But none of those would show accountability--merely masochism.

Instead, and this is what I did do, when the file finally was able to transfer, I told the recipient that because the email server was down and because I wasn't able to deliver on time, I would be at his disposal for the next 24 hours to immediately make any changes that he would like--at no extra charge.

The reason I did this was because I was accountable for my action and inaction. I wasn't "punishing" myself. I was simply telling him--and me--that I have the moral integrity to be responsible at all times for all the things I do.

There's a bit more to it than that, but I've reached the word limit that the gurus tell me is optimal for a blog, so I'll leave the rest for the next post.