I love this quote from Peter Block.
It’s one of my favourite books. It says everything about what a community is, and how it is created.
The merge and amalgamation of all the gifts, generosity, possibilities, and accountability of every one of its citizens. It is defined by what we collectively offer, by how we come together and why, and the potential and possibilities we’re willing to tackle – and achieve – together.
It is not defined by the critics and detractors, or by fears or shortfalls, but by the contributors who show up to make it special.
Only the foolish expect perfection
So within that frame, we should expect some of the fallibility, vulnerability, and imperfections that are so intertwined in every one of us – even at our best – to be absolutely inherent in how we come together. A beautiful but imperfect community of possibilities.
And that’s exactly how most of us approach it.
Throwing ourselves in, with full accountability and acknowledged fallibility, generously supporting every other person doing the same alongside us.
The true meaning of Accountability is “the quality or state of being accountable. Especially an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions”.
By definition, that means a lack of accountability is the opposite. That responsibility for your actions is missing. You leave a hole, of your own making, for someone else to fill.
And that’s not as easy as it sounds to address. The fallibility of human beings makes it confusing. All of us, at some time, fall a bit short, and need a hand. We create a hole – a dropped ball – and for the team or community to continue winning, we rely on someone else to pick it up. The key difference between a person who needs a hand, and the oblivious ball dropper is accountability.
On a day a person needs a hand – unwell, child is sick, parents need a hand – a good person is still wildly accountable. ‘I dropped the ball – noted – and I need a hand’, and even ‘thank you’ when that hand is forthcoming. A less accountable person is more likely to describe that why the ball drop was either not their fault or was reasonable given their unique hardship or current difficulties.
Anyone can criticise
No one I’ve ever met is perfect, and even fewer have thought they were. So, assuming this massive collective lack of perfection as our shared and fully acknowledged baseline, we can all deservedly attract some criticism.
Most of us, however, rationalise it with a little kindness. That wasn’t perfect, but it was very good. That wasn’t perfect, but they tried incredibly hard and it was a big step forward. That wasn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than I could do, or that they’ve ever done before, so I’m going in for a supportive compliment, calling out the 98% right, not the 2% shortfall.
There are however those who see ‘criticism’ as their superpower. Their narrative is ‘I ask the tough questions’. ‘I call out the tough stuff’’. ‘I’m taking to LinkedIn/X/Facebook to say that, as I’m the only one that spotted this flaw’. They’re not. We’ve all spotted it. The rest of us are just concentrating on fixing it, or leaning in to help.
And when you see those ‘critique is a my super power’ people, there can be only one redeeming feature – that they are super critical of themselves, that they are that rare beast that is in fact perfect, and that they never ever ever miss a deadline, a standard, a win or a high score. If, however, they’re as imperfect as the rest of us, they are what I call an insufferable critic. All you ever hear from them is bad news about others. Let’s chat about how to deal with them.
Working with the insufferable critic
I get Do Bono’s hat theory. The black one is important. What might go wrong? What we might have missed? The risks, difficulties, and problems.
But then, beyond that, is that person who turns up every Monday to let everyone else know what they got, are getting, or are about to get wrong.
We’ve all worked with one. Often the joy in their harsh critique reminds me of this quote:
“Some people talk about other people’s failures with so much pleasure that you would swear they are talking about their own successes.” — Mokokoma Mokhonoana
And so, I land on a different quote from the ever poignant Aristotle:
I hear the critique. I smile. I offer what one psychologist called the rock defence and move on.
(The Rock Defence is offered as the perfect solution for the constant critic. It is, without any irony, to ‘act like a rock’. I remember learning it as the response of giving nothing – “Thank you. I’ll take that on board”, but I’ve always preferred to give even less, so I adopt “That is interesting. I’ve not heard it expressed like that before. Thank you.” No argument. No pushback. Just ‘like a rock’ – absorb and don’t defend).
The Mistake Every Leader Has Made
A bad day for a leader is losing someone they know is really good for yuor team. It’s even worse when it is your fault. When that super good, highly accountable, and generous member of your team – who is more than capable of holding up their part of the sky, and more – sits you down and says “I can’t keep holding up more than my share because Person X keeps on dropping the ball”.
I had this exact thing happen not that long ago.
Like most leaders, I want everyone on the team to be awesome. You work hard to support every person, coaching them as best as you possibly can, and even lifting them or carrying some of their load, but sometimes, you’re not enough to get them over the line. And before you accept that shortfall, delaying the tough conversation to call it a day – while you’re still lifting them and helping them – you’re already not available for that awesome someone else who is already carrying extra. That’s exactly what happened to me.
So, I sat in front of this awesome member of the team and heard the truth I already knew. That Person X wasn’t accountable. They dropped the ball, often, for a thousand different reasons, all explained in great detail, and then expected someone to pick it up – which one of us always did – and then they criticised the way it was picked up. An insufferable critic AND with a ball dropper – the worst possible combo.
If you’re the boss, taking the bad eggs out of your community – those that aren’t generous or accountable – is absolutely your responsibility and no one else’s.
It’s can be the toughest decision to make, and the toughest lesson when you don’t make it.
We often talk about the role of ‘building a great team’, or a great culture or community, but the other half of the role is making sure that one unaccountable, or ungenerous, super critical person doesn’t undo the very best of the community for anyone else.
Enough said about super critics. Let’s talk a little about our own imperfection.
Your Imperfection is Someone Else’s Opportunity
A lack of perfection, backed by self-awareness and deep accountability, is very different.
When you fall short – playing your B Game, as it were – you’re leaving space for someone else to help you. It’s also space for them to be better, take on more, and stretch out to their most generous best. Backed by your acknowledgment and authentic gratitude, it’s their turn to lift the team, change the game, and inspire a new standard. Knowing all the while, that when the boot is on the other foot – and that boot is worn by every one of us at some time – you’ll unthinkingly do exactly that for them. You’re absolutely in it together. Unquestionably.
In short, community and team is about exactly what Block said it is.
Gifts, generosity, and accountability.
Of every person. Doing their best. As imperfect as they (and we) all are.
The super contributors!
It is never defined by the critic.
They’re just watching – part of the audience if you like – not the community.
Postscript Note: When we measure teams and culture, we measure accountability, generosity, and appreciation, amongst a set of crtically important factors. In short, we’re measuring for contributors and super contributors. They are so important in defining culture and its potential. If you’d like to understand more about the keys to culture and the mwah. Culture Dashboard, drop us a line at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you.