Thursday, September 16, 2010

Freedom and Accountability

Every act we perform is, in its foundation, a free one (Freedom And Accountability At Work, Koestenbaum and Block, 2001, P. 49)
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The western world is in love with the concept of freedom.  It is the most precious aspect of society.  Whether it is the freedom of religion or speech, the freedom to choose our political leaders, or to pursue the life we choose without fear of interference from individuals or governments, freedom is essential and paramount in all things.

However, when we move from our societal craving for freedom to our personal lives, or the workplace, we seem ready to give up our freedom and are willing to put our happiness and our level of motivation in the hands of someone else.  In the workplace we call this someone else "management".  It becomes management's job to give us rewarding work, to motivate us, to make us into high-performing individuals and teams.  We tell ourselves that our mechanical systems of rewards and punishments, measurements, strategies, or command and control structures get the behaviors that we want from our organizations.  In short, we create these devices to help eliminate the need for the exercise of free will.

Koestenbaum and Block suggest that this "escape from freedom," as Erich Fromm called it, is in large part due to the fact that "...with freedom comes accountability, and with accountability comes guilt, and with guilt comes anxiety.  Since our freedom leads to anxiety, it is easier to repress it than to bear it proudly." (Freedom And Accountability At Work, Koestenbaum and Block, 2001, P. 30)  Both in our lives and in our work it is often easier to deny our freedom and allow others to choose than to make difficult choices ourselves.

But this creates an interesting paradox.  By allowing others to choose I have made a choice.  I have chosen to give others the power to choose for me, which in itself is an exercise of my free will.  Therefore, I am still accountable, at least to myself, for the results of my decision.

Arguments are sure to be put forward showing how, at least in certain circumstances, I had no choice in the matter:  "I hate this job, but if I don't come to work I will be fired.  I have no choice but to come to work."  Or, "The law says I have to pay my taxes.  I have no choice.  If I don't pay my taxes I will go to jail."

When these statements are examined more closely we see that there is an element of choice in each.  I choose to continue to go work at a job that I hate because I am unwilling to deal with the consequences of walking away from the job.  Instead of choosing to look for another job, I choose to continue working at the one I have.  I am accountable for my choice to continue in an unpleasant job instead of changing my situation.  I choose to pay my taxes because I am not willing to be accountable for the consequences related to not paying my taxes.  Regardless of why I made the choice to pay my taxes, it is still my choice to make the payment.

We are not always in control of the alternatives among which we may choose.  Having free will does not imply that life will always be perfect, or that the choice of another option would have provided us with great happiness.  But through the exercise of our free will we are able to embrace our humanity, and to take on the succession of risks that life has to offer.

Recognizing that we are free gives us the ability to exercise control over our existence, and lets us shift from blaming others for how things are to being accountable for our life.  "Once the inevitability [that we are accountable] is recognized, we will be inclined to place the full blame [or credit] on ourselves rather than on others or on objective situations beyond our control."  (Freedom And Accountability At Work, Koestenbaum and Block, 2001, P. 79)

The good news is that you have free will, and that opens up a world of opportunity.  The bad news is that you have free will, and that opens up a world of accountability.  Good luck with both.