How To Build A Culture Of Accountability

For a hot minute last May, Twitter was a feisty underdogin a battle against a predatory villain, a company fighting for its identity against someone who treated it -- and its nearly 400 million users -- as a plaything.

It was exciting to see the company stand its ground and notch up a quick win in the Delaware chancery court, with a judge granting them a speedy trial. Exciting to see Twitter hold its would-be acquirer to account.

And then, earlier this week, the narrative changed dramatically. Twitter’s former head of security, Peiter Zatko, said the company had made misrepresentations in its disclosures in the deal. Worse, Zatko said Twitter had been "in violation of numerous laws and regulations" and has exhibited "extreme, egregious deficiencies" regarding privacy, security, and content moderation.



All these shenanigans reinforce one of the most profound truths about organizational culture: it takes intentional, deliberate, sustained effort to build cultures of ownership, accountability, and integrity.

Those cultures start with a profound understanding of what the process looks like when we screw up. I’ve built out this process into a framework: the “Five Stages Of ‘I Screwed Up.’”

Stage 1 is about catastrophizing and shame: "Oh no! I screwed up! This is a disaster, everyone is going to hate me, I'm going to get fired and die alone." This stage is obviously optional, and yet it’s frequently our first, natural reaction to making a mistake.

Stage 2 is about perspective and accountability: "OK, yes, I screwed up, but mistakes happen. I need to own what I did so I can address it fully."

Stage 3 is about fixing it: sending out the apology email, updating the website, calling the customer.

Stage 4 is about learning: How can we make this mistake less likely to happen in the future?

And Stage 5 is about acceptance and forgiveness: about recognizing that mistakes are a part of being human… and we’ll see you back at Stage 1 soon enough.

There are a few things it’s important to understand about the five stages.

First, we often try to jump from Stage 1 (shame) to Stage 3 (fixing it). When we make a mistake, it’s natural to want to fix it ASAP -- ideally before anyone else notices. Often this means we rush to a solution without fully understanding or accepting what went wrong in the first place. If we skip Stage 2 (accountability), we run a very real risk of compounding the mistake or making it worse.

Second, there is a substantive difference between blaming ourselves and taking accountability. It’s important to understand the difference between beating ourselves up -- which comes from a place of shame -- and owning our mistakes -- which comes from a place of accountability.

In Stage 1, we might say things like, “I can’t believe I screwed this up again, I’m the worst, I’m terrible at this,” while in Stage 2 we might say, “I sent the wrong email because I was rushing and I didn’t take the time to double-check all the links.” Notice the Stage 1 comments are about the individual (“I am bad”) while the Stage 2 comments are about actions (“I did the wrong thing”).

Third, when we screw up, one of the most important things we can do is slow down. Moving from Stage 1 to Stage 2 requires us to slow down and take a breath before acting. To take a minute to sit with what happened. To own it. Then we can move to fixing things from a place of power and accountability.

Likewise, we have to slow down to learn the right lessons. When we’re still sitting in shame, our go-to solutions often revolve around unattainable ideals of perfectionism. When we take accountability, we understand that it’s our systems and ways of working that support us to deliver excellence.

I’m not saying this framework would have prevented Twitter from extreme, egregious deficiencies in violation of numerous laws and regulations. What I’m saying is that cultures of ownership and accountability don’t just happen. They are built, by leaders who explicitly articulate and invest in skills, norms and expectations at every level of the organization.

Without this kind of effort -- intentional, deliberate, sustained effort -- we’re all just a few years of compounded dysfunction away from ending up on the losing side in a Delaware chancery court.

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