How to Bring Accountability to Our Relationships at Work


Even before the research punctuated it (Oswald et al, 2014), Google knew that happier employees could be more productive without sacrificing quality. Why? Their colleagues take accountability for dysfunctional relationship dynamics in the work environment and, by doing so, reallocate the time that would otherwise be spent on conflict resolution or mending fences and spend it doing actual work (increased by 37% in the study).

It’s also no mistake that Google developed a template for mindfulness training called Search Inside Yourself. This course helps Google’s employees appreciate their individual value to the company and how to leverage those strengths to help meet the organization’s goals. In an age of the performance review that relies on action plans to address identified weaknesses, Google’s approach teaches self-motivation and accountability while trusting their staff to take risks.


What do most relationships look like at work?

Whether we’re in the office or at home, we tend to focus on what others can do for us.

At work, it manifests as how our colleagues, especially our direct reports, can get us closer to our team and individual goals. We believe that meeting or exceeding those goals provides increased job security and better compensation. Oftentimes, it does.


What happens when conflict arises in those relationships?

Simply put, conflict in relationships is a function of our expectations going unmet.

At home, it can be disagreements over how to manage money or parenting styles. At work, we have spoken and unspoken expectations of the people upon whom we rely in order for us to be successful.

We want them to behave a certain way in certain situations. We expect them to provide a certain level of support during challenging circumstances. We need them to trust our decision-making.

There are a myriad of ways we set up others to fail if they don’t perform the way we expect them to.


Why does this happen?

We strive, consciously and unconsciously, to feel safe and the mechanism we use is the setting of expectations.

However, our stress is the delta between those expectations and reality.

By having expectations of others’ performance and behavior, we believe we can narrow that delta. Talk about control issues!

BackToBackOf course, the problem is that it’s rare when our expectations are fully met and, when they aren’t, negative emotions arise (e.g., resentment).

As a result, conflicts in relationships produce these emotions which are manifested in a number of physical and behavioral ways. Some people yell at their colleagues. Others internalize their frustration which can turn into headaches or tightened muscles. Slamming doors and pounding fists are not unusual.

Regardless, the time and effort it takes to sort out the conflict and repair the damage is time taken away from driving toward team and organizational outcomes.

All this as a result of how we expect others to make us feel!


Taking accountability can feel risky.

Unfortunately, our mind’s default setting during conflict is to deflect accountability. It’s much safer to blame others than it is to shine the light on ourselves and look at our own contributions to the problems.

Oftentimes, blaming others is a normal part of an organization’s culture.

At your job, what are the risks of saying, “I set up an unachievable expectation of ______ and, as a result, we failed to achieve what we promised our customer”?

Will you be penalized through disciplinary or financial means if you take accountability? Or will there be an understanding of why errors occurred and an appreciation for stepping up and sharing some of the blame?

This is what Google and other successful companies like General Mills, Aetna and others have figured out.

On an individual and very personal level, not having our expectations met gets at some pretty meaty underlying issues and rather than confront them, our minds have been trained to dismiss the true source of the negative emotion and, instead, turn outward to blame others.

“If I work harder to get others to meet my expectations of them, I won’t have to face that scary stuff deep inside!”

That “scary stuff” includes questions about our own worthiness, our fears of rejection and failure and, ultimately, the degree of control we have over our own happiness.


How can mindful practice help?

Mindfulness teaches us that the most healing long-term strategy is not to push these scary thoughts aside but rather to invite them into our consciousness for further exploration.

We shy away from feeling uncomfortable but as we practice becoming aware of the true sources of our conflict with others, our confidence can grow.

That practice is nothing more than being aware of instances as they occur, when our expectations of others are a cover for our own fears.

Mindfulness is purposely paying attention to the present moment without judgment.

If we can be vulnerable enough to identify opportunities to take accountability for at least some portion of our relationships with others (without beating ourselves up), we’re going to be more likely to build trust in them and come to look forward to alternative ways to achieve those organizational goals.

To be clear, there is a difference between expectations and goals.

It is necessary to have individual, team and organizational goals in any workplace. However, the root of the word “expectation” is “expect” which feels much harsher when talking about relationships.

If you expect a result and don’t get it, the resulting negative emotions are likely to be stronger and the fallout deeper. The deeper the fallout, the more damage that will be caused to overall productivity and service quality.

It feels more collaborative to “work toward goals” than “meet expectations”.

Using that kind of language contributes to how we feel about our working relationships.

For comprehensive training modules on leadership development topics such as this, please visit our Solutions page.



Then what’s the goal?

Nothing brings greater joy than giving to others, right? That is abundantly clear when people open gifts we’ve gotten for them. That same joy is possible even when relationships grow more complex and are layered with the matrix of the work environment.

Because it cuts across our mind’s biological default mechanisms which have been honed by evolution, it takes work and lots of practice to search within ourselves instead of blaming others and confront deep-seated fears about ourselves.

But don’t the things that are most worth waiting for seem to demand that effort?

By finding those opportunities, our defenses will start to recede and the paranoia and distrust we may have had can be replaced with genuine compassion and generosity.

Some of the most successful companies in the world have already learned this lesson and their results are unmistakable. Now, it’s your turn.


Mindful Follow-Up Questions

  1. When conflict develops between you and a colleague at work, how often do you instinctually look for reasons to blame the other person?
  2. What expectations do you have of your direct reports? Your peers? Your boss? What kinds of physical and behavioral reactions do you experience when those expectations aren’t met?
  3. What are some of your fears of admitting to your mistakes? What results do you expect if you take accountability for situations where your work could have been better?
  4. What steps can you take right away that will help you recognize when your unmet expectations trigger relationship fissures with your colleagues at work?
  5. Are you willing to challenge your current work culture and start recognizing individual accountability when relationship issues arise?


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