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Accountability—or, ‘I don’t trust you’

Accountability is all the rage. It has become the code word for being watched, disguised as “responsibility.” It means answering your email right away—at 10 p.m. It means you need the signature of the Grab driver for the transportation paperwork because the automated receipt of a Singapore-based company cannot possibly be accurate. Most especially, when something goes wrong, it means we need someone to blame.

Accountability boils down to trust. Our workplace wants our trust, wishing that we trust them in return. When this is mutual, we grow and thrive together. But many of us do not feel trusted at work.

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What are some signs your workplace does not trust you?

People carbon copy (cc) the boss in emails. We so often communicate online that nobody bats an eye when we get work-related messages at 2 a.m. It is also second nature to “cc” our supervisors when emailing others. This is well-meaning and most likely done in good faith. We say that we want to loop in our boss. We call it “transparency” and “collaboration.”

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But cc-ing the boss can breed collective distrust, not to mention overburdening the supervisor with trivial messages and wasting time that the boss should be devoted to actually leading the workplace.

In a series of experiments and organizational surveys led by a researcher at the University of Cambridge who’s now at the National University of Singapore, the more employees included the supervisor in emails to their colleagues, the less trusted the coworkers felt. They believed that their expertise, kindness and compassion were being questioned—that they could not independently get the tasks done. They subsequently regarded their workplace as having low overall trust, “fostering a culture of fear and low psychological safety,” said the surveys. These studies involved more than 900 employees in the United States, United Kingdom, China and the Netherlands.

Another sign of distrust is when organizations shy away from risk. And no one is more averse to risk than bureaucratic workplaces. They design policies and structures not to manage but to control. They require multiple signatures on even simple matters (which wastes time), feel the necessity for written requests “thru channels” (which is really an ego stroke for upper management), and demand physical proofs of documents (which is a total slap against environmental awareness).

Such a workplace signals that information and resources are inaccessible, heavily regulated and centrally restricted—and more crucially, that we cannot be trusted with them. It suggests that only specific people have the sufficient common sense to make good judgment.

Organizations optimize this process with an eye for efficiency but with the opposite effect: It stifles our risk-taking and creativity—the engines of any thriving workplace that aims for longevity. This erodes trust, rubber-stamping to us that our ideas, however diverse and rich, will not be nurtured in the organization.

There are many more signs that we are not trusted, but they all have one thing in common: they lower our psychological safety. This safety is our ability to take risks in a team without being punished or humiliated. We feel respected and accepted even when we make mistakes.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson found that the most cohesive hospital teams were more likely to report mistakes. It turns out that among these teams, it is not that they made more mistakes but that they felt more open and willing to disclose what they did wrong—and thereby open opportunities to improve and grow. This study was the basis of Edmonson’s authoritative 1999 paper on psychological safety and team behavior.

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In a more recent two-year study by Google, the technology giant found that psychological safety was the most important dynamic among the highest-performing teams—above and beyond dependability among our coworkers, clarity in our workplace goals and roles, whether we find value in what we do, and if our work makes impact.

Psychological safety is not a coworking space quirk or a social media influencer trend in our data-saturated era. It finds a home in evolutionary psychobiology. When the boss is cc-ed in the email, or you need five signatures to buy a ream of paper, our brain registers it as a provocation. Our amygdala—the almond-shaped transit hub of our thoughts and feelings—rings the alarm and registers the supposed “transparency” as a threat. It hijacks our ability to think more clearly and make more rational decisions. We shut down, we feel psychologically unsafe.

We need to be challenged, not threatened. We need management to be our collaborator, not our adversary. We need leaders, not babysitters. Underlying these are our human needs to be respected, to experience joy and to be valued.

Organizations forfeit our trust and diminish our psychological safety when they are drawn to accountability in name only, not what accountability is capable of signifying and cultivating.

Dr. Ronald Del Castillo is professor of psychology, public health and public policy at the University of the Philippines Manila. The views here are his own.

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