Ten psychological tactics for avoiding accountability and how to address them

By Kelly O'Donnell
Kelly O’Donnell (PsyD) is a consulting psychologist and CEO of Member Care Associates.

This blog explores psychological perspectives on what helps and hinders good practice for accountability. Cognitive dissonance is one of the most relevant concepts from social psychology that can help us “do accountability well” and hopefully minimise our propensity to prevarication when it comes to accountability. It refers to the disturbing, internal incongruence that we feel as we try to harmonise discrepant thoughts about ourselves.

In their book, Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me (2007), Tavris and Aronson describe cognitive dissonance as follows: “When we make mistakes, we must calm the cognitive dissonance [inner disharmony between our ideal self and actual self] that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right—a belief that is dumb, immoral, and wrong.”

Cognitive dissonance provides a useful conceptual grid to understand what we are up against when we try to bring ourselves and our organisations to account, for example, when assessing how we are putting into practice the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS). Greater self-awareness is no guarantee of better practice, but it certainly can help! The quote below from Tavris and Aronson sheds more light for us and our sector.

"Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. Yet mindless self-justification, like quicksand, can draw us deeper into disaster. It blocks our ability to even see our errors, let alone correct them. It keeps many professionals from changing outdated attitudes and procedures that can be harmful to the public." (pp. 4-10)

Here are ten tactics used to avoid accountability for mistakes, poor practice, dysfunction, and outright deviance that I have seen firsthand over the past eight years as part of a network confronting a major international fraud (see PETRA People, Tricks for Feigning Good Practice, February-March 2016). These tactics illustrate what not to do when we and our organisations are asked to give an account of our work - be it via routine self-assessments or requests to explain our actions. They can serve to minimise cognitive dissonance, to protect ourselves, or to intentionally misrepresent the facts. Understanding how we can get it wrong can be a helpful way to avoid some of these proven “tactical tricks” for avoiding accountability.

1. Delegate the matter to someone else internally - diffuse it, distance yourself from it - and do everything to avoid an internal and especially an independent review.

2. Avoid, reword, or repackage, the issues - obfuscate the facts, or at least talk tentatively or vaguely about some mistakes in the past and that you or someone could probably have done a better job on … but go no further; rationalise and/or disguise any culpability.

3. Focus on minor or “other” things so as to look like you are focusing on the central things, punctuating it all with the language of transparency and accountability.

4. Appeal to your integrity and to acting with the highest standards, without demonstrating either.

5. Point out your past track record. Highlight anything positive that you are doing or contributing to now.

6. Ask and assume that people should trust you without verification. Offer some general assurances that you have or will be looking into the matter and all is okay.

7. State that you are under attack or at least that you are not being treated fairly or that people just don’t understand.

8. Mention other peoples’ (alleged) problems, question their motives and credibility; dress someone else in your own dirty clothes, especially if they are noisome question-askers or whistleblowers.

9. Prop up the old boys’ leadership club, reshuffle the leadership deck if necessary yet without changing leaders or their power or how they can cover for each other in the name of “loyalty” and on behalf of the “greater good”. Try to hold out until the dust settles and the “uncomfortable” stuff hopefully goes away.

10. So in short, don’t really do anything with real transparency and accountability; rather, maintain your self-interests, lifestyle, affiliations, and allusions of moral congruity, even if it means recalibrating your conscience - essentially, acting corruptly via complicity, cover-ups, and cowardice.             

Addressing Tactical Tricks: Integrity

Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization, recently reminded us that: “This is a world that is not seeing the best of human nature.” So how can we bring out the best of who we are, in particular as it concerns our accountability practices? Here are five suggestions for developing the main tool that we have in our good practice arsenal: integrity. We use Global Integrity's definintion of integrity which defines it as the core quality and commitment that helps us align our stated values with our actual behaviours as we pursue consistent moral wholeness.

1. Yourself. Examine your accountability practices by reviewing this weblog entry. What are you aware of regarding your strengths and weaknesses? Can you give some specific examples?

2. Colleagues. Discuss this topic with colleagues. To what extent are and can colleagues be accountable with one another? Identify some personal, group, organisational and sectoral vulnerabilities for prevarication as well as safeguards for ethical action. For example, as a group watch social psychologist Phil Zimbardo’s TedTalk (2008) on what makes nice people go bad and the need for ordinary heroes. 

3. Managers. Encourage management to consider how they express moral values in the workplace, especially reflecting on how one’s private morality can differ from one’s workplace morality. Crisis times can be especially risky for compromising ones core values. See the short introduction about this common and serious discrepancy in Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, (2010) by Robert Jackal.

4. Leaders. Model and mentor transparency and accountability as leaders. Admit mistakes. Welcome feedback from others.  Encourage colleagues to share “uncomfortable” information with you. Know, review, and refer to relevant good practice codes. As necessary, support the development of clear policies on whistleblower protection and non-retaliation. Chapter one in Bennis et al’s book is very helpful for leadership integrity: Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor (2008). Much of this chapter is available for preview online here.

5. Ethos. Cultivate an organisational “culture of integrity” as encouraged for example by the UN Global Compact. Intentionally weave transparency and accountability into “how we do things:” our organisational thinking, strategies, polices, and procedures. Normalise it. Reward it. Organisational integrity is fundamentally a collective mentality that shapes our work for better or worse. It is inculcated throughout the life cycle of staff (from recruitment to end of service) and not just mentioned for example as part of an orientation packet or during a crisis time.

What tactics have you encountered that people use to avoid accountability? Do you have any ideas about how we can address them as individuals and organisations? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.