Authenticity Requires Accountability

By Robert E. Quinn

Authentic communication is critical to the process of change. I illustrated this point with a group of nonprofit CEOs by using a story about another group I had taught.

In that earlier course, I led senior executives from a Fortune 500 company in conceptualizing their desired future.  I then helped them examine the gaps between that desired future and their own present behavior.  After that, I put them in a situation in which they had to publicly own their shortcomings and declare what personal changes they were willing to make to bring about the collective future they claimed to desire.

As I reached the height of this account, my audience of nonprofit CEOs seemed both fully engaged and deep in thought.  I pointed it out and asked why they were they were so contemplative.

“Because the communication process was so real,” one of them said. “You held them accountable to their deepest moral responsibility, and we never experience that in organizations. We continually posture, but never commit in the way you were asking them to commit.”

During a break, my teaching colleague approached me to share a brief story.  A student in one of his courses had become unsettled because the professor had required them all to “take a stand” when they spoke; that is, he required them to own their own words, to speak with integrity and authenticity.  “I’ve spent his life learning to speak without really saying anything!” the student said.  He had consciously worked at mastering this “art” because it allowed him to avoid being accountable.

Authentic communication requires accountability, just as it requires vulnerability. Is it risky? At times. Is it effective? Yes. Is it enriching? Always.