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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Accountability or Forgiveness?

Dear Crucial Skills,

I work in a religious organization. In the organization’s culture, the rank and file employee has very little ability to raise questions about policies or directives without being seen as not only challenging the authority/expertise of the applicable supervisor, but sometimes as being “out of line” ecclesiastically. What compounds this problem is that the organization implicitly endorses silence over violence (it is better to “turn the other cheek”) and sometimes even endorses silence over attempts at dialogue. In this environment it is very difficult to establish the safety necessary for dialogue.

Recently, I was trying to talk with my supervisor about some promises he had repeatedly made that had never been fulfilled. He said that I shouldn’t have relied on those promises since he didn’t have full authority to make them and that I should learn to forgive. I was then encouraged to read the teachings of one of the ecclesiastical leaders on forgiveness. Others have tried approaching him on similar issues of accountability for himself or others and it is common for this supervisor to tell others to forgive. This is the case whether he or someone else has violated their promises. The message we get is that violated expectations are just part of life so “forgive and forget,” but most of all “be quiet.” How do any of us talk about this problem with accountability without looking like the bad guy who can’t forgive?


Dear Fettered,

This problem, by its very nature, can easily fire up one’s emotions and is exacerbated by the complexities of mixing religious doctrine with day-to-day accountability. The problem itself depends on how your faith defines each. Not knowing your definitions I’m a bit shackled, but I will plow on ahead anyway. I’ll draw on my own definitions and then you can decide if they make any sense to you.

Let me start by suggesting that in my view the concepts of forgiveness and accountability are never at odds with each other. Forgiveness takes place in one’s heart. You’ve judged another person’s actions, often become emotional as a result, and now are living with these thoughts. The idea of forgiving is to refrain from judging and let go of the strong emotions that come with it, thus freeing yourself both intellectually and emotionally. Gone are the bile and bitterness and the effects on your health and on the relationship. Once again, all of this happens within your own heart.

Accountability, in contrast, deals with the practical aspects of working together. In an environment where you’re interdependent, you make promises to one another, count on people to deliver, and then talk to one another if things don’t go as planned. If you can’t talk about disappointments and letdowns, predictability flies out the window and you live under the stress of not knowing what to expect. Living in a culture of low accountability drives you nuts and ends up killing your business. In volunteer organizations that won’t fail per se, it makes you very inefficient. All organizations, religious or otherwise, have to rely on the same rules of accountability or suffer the consequences.

Now, here’s where this takes us. When your supervisor lets you down, you try to work through the issue, and then he skirts the topic by asking you to forgive him, he’s confusing the issues. He’s taking you off the topic of accountability and reframing it as your problem of having judged him harshly–thus affecting your spiritual well-being and your emotions. Consequently, you need to forgive him to get back to where you were before. Not only is this sidetracking you from the issue of his not living up to a promise, it’s an assumption on his part about what’s going on in your heart. Maybe you don’t have to forgive him because you’ve made no such negative attributions. And even if you had judged him harshly or unfairly, it still leaves the accountability issue—a separate issue—unaddressed.

Imagine if people applied the same confused logic on a larger scale: “You’re right, I did embezzle money from the organization. I guess you’ll just have to forgive me.” Forgiveness and accountability are indeed separate issues and should be handled in separate ways.

So what’s a person to do? At a minimum I’d want to talk about separating forgiveness from accountability. I’d bring this problem up as one that needs to be resolved in order to continue improving the quality of your organization. Try starting with something like, “Can we talk about something that I fear is making it hard for us to continuously improve?”

Surely you need to be continually progressing, and this requires the ability to address and solve problems. Anything that stifles honest accountability discussion—both up and down the chain of command—stands in the way of continuous improvement. Stepping away from problems, refusing to resolve them, and calling for forgiveness does just that. It sidetracks a healthy problem-solving process. It ruins accountability.

Set up the problem by starting with the facts and then describing why you see them as a problem. Remember to use tentative language and avoid accusing your supervisor without knowing the whole story.

“When I bring up a problem, you suggest that I need to forgive you. This often takes the focus off the problem and keeps us from resolving it. I’d like to be able to talk about problems until we’ve worked them through to both our satisfaction.”

You might also want to tentatively tell the story you’re starting to tell yourself–suggest that this tactic feels manipulative and that you’d rather keep the discussions of forgiveness and accountability separate. How far you want to take this aspect of the problem is up to you, but my guess is you’ll need to say something or it could eventually harm your emotions, your beliefs, and your relationship with key people of your faith. Remember again to be tentative and make it safe for the other person when stating your conclusions:

“I’m beginning to wonder if you’re bringing up the need for forgiveness because it’s more comfortable for you than addressing the problem at hand. Is this what’s happening or am I missing something here?” Whatever you do, make sure that you separate the two issues; stay focused on problem solving rather than forgiveness, and keep an upbeat and pleasant tone.

Best of luck,
Kerry Patterson

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

1 thought

  1. Jayne Nielsen

    Kerry. You provided a GREAT response and solid advice and insight to this reader’s frustrating dilemma. It would be prudent of me to file and keep for future reference. Thank you.

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