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 minimize our propensity to prevarication when it comes to accountability. It refers to the disturbing, internal incongruence that we feel as we try to harmonize 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 organizations 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 It keeps many professionals from changing outdated attitudes and procedures that can be harmful to the public.”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 organizations 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 minimize cognitive dissonance, to protect ourselves, or 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.