A Talk with Marc Lesser, author of Finding Clarity: How Compassionate Accountability Builds Vibrant Relationships, Thriving Workplaces, and Meaningful Lives

Marc Lesser is a speaker, facilitator, workshop leader, and executive coach. He is the author of four books, including Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader: Lessons from Google and a Zen Monastery Kitchen, and CEO of ZBA Associates, an executive development and leadership consulting company. Lesser helped develop the world-renowned Search Inside Yourself (SIY) program within Google and was director of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the oldest Zen monastery in the Western world. He lives in Marin County, California, and leads Mill Valley Zen, a weekly meditation group. More information at www.MarcLesser.net

What is compassionate accountability?

Compassionate accountability integrates care, connection, and love with clarity, alignment, and purposeful action. It is a trainable method to leverage trust and understanding to achieve greater effectiveness and results, to reduce misunderstandings and conflicts, and to provide a way to, more effectively achieve our goals, objectives, and visions.

Cultures that emphasize compassion without accountability tend to be low in energy and ineffective. Those that emphasize accountability without compassion can be cold and often are harsh. Environments that are low in both compassion and accountability are dull and chaotic. The sweet spot, the place for cultivating healthy, thriving, effective cultures, is an environment that excels in both compassion and accountability: the practice of compassionate accountability.

Accountability can be defined as an acceptance of responsibility for honest and ethical conduct in our words and actions. It’s the process of aligning our differences through greater understanding, and it’s the ability to see and experience from multiple perspectives.

Accountability may be one of the most important skills and practices for human beings, especially during this time of dynamic change, formidable threats, and significant possibilities. Accountability is particularly essential in our workplaces, where people engage and interact closely in an array of relationships and across a multitude of teams. Within dynamic cultures aspiring to get things done, accountability helps us to find solutions and overcome obstacles with creativity and to work with a sense of urgency. Accountability is also an essential practice at the heart of all our relationships: in our families, our centers of education, and across our political landscape. 

Accountability alone, though, is not enough. By itself, it can be cold and harsh and can undermine the very visions and goals we aim to achieve. Humans need more than aligning around goals. We breathe, act, and live in relationship to one another. We need to care about each other. We need to feel safe and connected to those we work with. And we need meaning, motivation, and purpose — a sense that our work, our goals and visions, and our relationships matter. Without care, trust, connection, and purpose, we risk feeling unsafe and threatened by those who would “hold us accountable,” and so slip into conflict avoidance. 

An integral part of accountability is holding each other accountable not only for what we are achieving but for how we are working together, for the quality of our relationships. Any business needs to value what it produces along with its most important asset: people.  The word compassion literally means “to suffer together.” It means to access our own human vulnerability, as well as our common humanity. Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. 

What are the benefits of compassionate accountability and why it is so important in the workplace, yet so challenging to achieve? 

Working together with care and alignment, with high accountability as well as trust, care, and compassion, can feel great and foster tremendous personal and professional development. There is great beauty in being part of a team, a family, or a group of friends when we operate like a talented jazz ensemble, taking cues from one another, learning from one another, and creating magnificent music together. 

In theory, we all want and value accountability. This is what makes us so surprised, disappointed, and angry when it’s missing, when there is a lack of it. We know it’s necessary. When accountability is present, not only does it help prevent terrible decisions, breakdowns, and bad behavior, but it fosters other positive attributes: more alignment, trust, and understanding.

Even when people and organizations have varied, sometimes competing perspectives, when they are accountable to one another and work passionately and wholeheartedly toward shared goals and visions, amazing results can be achieved. 

What can Homer Simpson, The Buddha, and Alice in Wonderland can teach us about accountability, clarity and curiosity?

Homer Simpson, The Buddha, and Alice In Wonderland walk Into a bar…This story from my book has received the most attention, though of course it’s a story from my imagination. It begins with a problem that Homer so beautifully elucidates when he states loudly: Why does everything have to be so Hard?!  Homer has a great way of expressing a feeling and a state of mind that I think we all share at times – a sense of overwhelm, fear, frustration, and powerlessness. 

The Buddha provides more nuance and understanding to Homer’s dilemma. It turns out that being human is hard and fraught with pain and challenges. Buddhism and this book describe a path of awareness and compassion through facing and transforming challenges and pain into possibility and effective action.

And then there is Alice, who provides a simple answer to the question, how? – Be curious, really curious. Let go of who you think you are, let go of your fears and fixed ideas, and see the world through fresh eyes.

How can we shift our thinking around “difficult people” and behaviors…and how do we know if we are the difficult person?

“What’s the best way to work with difficult people?” 

This is one of the most common questions I hear while leading mindful leadership trainings inside of companies or during public leadership workshops. Whenever I’m asked this question, I become curious. Very curious. 

I like to make eye contact with the person asking the question to try to see if the person is aware that they, too, are at times one of those “difficult people.” The question itself can be a subtle form of taking on the role of a victim, since it implies that the person might be blind to how they themselves can be negatively perceived by others. By labeling certain people or behaviors as “difficult,” the question is making a judgment, and it echoes our tendency to not want to be held accountable for our own role in “difficult” relationships.

Sometimes I even ask the person directly, “Are you, at times, one of those difficult people?” 

A strange and rather pervasive human behavior pattern is that we tend to judge others by the impact their actions have on us. We judge ourselves by our intentions. The practice of finding more clarity within ourselves and employing compassionate accountability begins with becoming more curious about these reactions and why they have arisen. Skillfully engaging in the practice “be curious, not furious” means to feel and act with a sense of greater safety, instead of scanning for threats. It means to feel more satisfied instead of focusing on what is lacking or needed. It means to feel and act with a greater sense of connection, not disconnection. It also means developing effective strategies for working more skillfully with strong emotions, which the rest of this chapter focuses on.

Why must we embrace curiosity – and why is it more difficult than we might think?

Relationships, especially in the workplace, can be challenging. Conflicts, differences of perspectives, and downright bad behavior crop up, sometimes when we least expect it. Relationships require our care and attention, and at times immense skill, in order to more fully understand ourselves, our emotional lives, our patterns, and the many ways we are fooled by our own assumptions and mistaken beliefs. It takes effort to understand others and to work more effectively with conflicts. Changing and the possibility of transforming our relationships and our environments requires both inner work and outer work. It means altering our views about ourselves and how we see the world; it means growing our communication skills and how we work with misunderstandings and breakdowns.

Curiosity is the starting point for finding clarity and for putting compassionate accountability into practice. Our ability to work and live within the dynamic constancy of change greatly influences how we manage our expectations of ourselves and our relationships. Our sense of identity — the way in which we experience ourselves, our core values, and our way of being in the world — greatly impacts and influences how we work, play, live, and interact with others.

Be curious, not furious. When things go wrong, don’t be shocked or get mad; accept that this will happen and be inquisitive. You and the world are not what they seem. Being furious cuts us off from being open, from exploring, and from learning and growing. Curiosity is the essential practice. 

What are the 4 most important words to assess any relationship?

I’ve become a student of frustration at work. And there is no shortage of things to be frustrated about: difficult, demanding leaders; a lack of support or resources; uncertain responsibilities; conflicting decision-making and priorities; no clear vision of success; and toxic workplace cultures that undermine trust and effective collaboration and that detract from our health and well-being. There can be enormous gaps between how things actually are and how we want them to be.  

The Four Most Important Words: One way to identify, better understand, and work skillfully with gaps is to have genuinely open and honest conversations. These can be started with what I consider the four most important words: How are we doing? Just asking this question is an expression of care and trust. How are we doing in meeting our work goals and in how we are working together?

That said, how we ask this question makes a big difference in how it is answered and in the conversation that follows. There are three important elements—being curious, being vulnerable, and listening for understanding. Then, we must follow this up with taking action. 

Meditation and mindfulness are key themes throughout Finding Clarity. Why? How are these related to well being and healthy work cultures?

Here is my suggested approach for developing the foundation for well being and cultivating healthy work environments. It begins with a meditation and mindfulness practice: 

Start by Stopping: Knowing and understanding ourselves takes time and effort, but it is so worth it! Stopping, really stopping — such as through a regular meditation or reflection practice — is like hitting the reset button. With each inhale, we notice our thoughts, our stories, our emotions, fears, and desires, and we become familiar with our patterns. Then with every exhale, we let go of everything, including our ideas of right and wrong, of good and bad, and our ideas of who we are as well as our self-help plans for others. To find clarity, start by stopping.

Turn toward inner conflicts: Engaging with our inner conflicts is an important part of growth and development. We all contain many parts — success and failure, optimism and pessimism, introversion, and extroversion. Facing, not avoiding, inner conflicts helps us appreciate our own depth, complexity, and flexibility. Understanding our paradoxes and contradictions is the path to clarity and freedom.

Engage with outer conflicts with compassion: Tangles, conflicts, and misunderstandings with others provide opportunities for growth, learning, and intimacy. We can notice any tendencies to avoid conflict, and instead lean in. Listen. Be curious. Experiment with ways to address conflict, and practice self-compassion.

Strive toward alignment via accountability: Accountability helps us align our actions with our goals. This means holding ourselves and others accountable for our expectations and choices, for the process, and for how we respect and take care of our relationships.

How can we develop greater self-awareness of the stories we tell ourselves so that we can view situations through a more productive lens?

A profound human truth is that there are events and there are our interpretations of those events — or the stories we tell ourselves about those events. Some find a long commute horribly frustrating, while others use that time to plan or relax. Some welcome rain and others curse it. Some approach a company off-site as an exciting opportunity to foster connections with colleagues while others regard it as a waste of time and resources that interrupts their productivity. Every conversation, every action, every email, every meeting — one event, multiple interpretations. 

Or put another way: Any event is both objective and subjective. There are the facts of what happened and the conclusions we draw. We are always interpreting our experiences, and those stories are real and powerful. In fact, we can’t help weaving stories, but part of finding clarity and acting with compassionate accountability is learning when and how to “drop the story.” This practice involves developing self-awareness of the stories we tell ourselves and evaluating how well, or how badly, they are serving us. Then, whenever we recognize that a certain story is self-defeating — when that story is causing problems and undermining our goals and happiness — we learn to “drop it” and tell a different, more-productive, more-effective story. 

All events are processed and interpreted through the lens of our individual identities, our complex emotional reactions, and the context of our life in order to fit a particular version of reality, the one we believe to be true. So are we telling ourselves stories of abundance or scarcity, happiness or unhappiness, power or powerlessness? Accountability also resides in the midst of our stories. What story are we holding ourselves and others accountable for? Facts matter. Truth matters. We need precision. At the same time, when it comes to accountability, compassion is an essential ingredient for getting at the facts, the truth, in ways that cultivate understanding, alignment, and more effectively working and living together.

What are the best ways to address breakdowns in the workplace and instead transform them into possibilities?

In The Splendid and the Vile, author Erik Larson describes how during one of the most intense and dramatic periods of World War II, Winston Churchill acted with a remarkable sense of focus and flexibility, as well as with compassion and accountability. This was during a radically challenging time, when London was being attacked and destroyed by German firebombing. Churchill’s approach provides useful and actionable lessons for turning breakdowns into breakthroughs. He focused on three practices:

Purpose and meaning

Cautious optimism

No sugarcoating

Purpose and meaning relate to naming values and creating a shared vision of where you’re going and why. When conflicts, difficulties, and breakdowns occur, one method for transforming them is to refocus everyone on the group’s larger purpose.

Fostering cautious optimism in a group is often the result of creating a culture of psychological safety. That is, the world can be challenging, and problems can be daunting and dangerous, but if people feel safe within the group, they are more prone to cautious optimism as opposed to cynicism and victimhood. Optimism is important for meeting breakdowns: It can help us see more clearly and act more decisively, with all stakeholders in mind. Cautious optimism is not avoidance, or pretending problems don’t exist or aren’t serious; it’s a form of courageous engagement that helps us work skillfully during difficult times.

When facing and confronting breakdowns in themselves, foster an attitude of “no sugarcoating.” Empower people to see clearly and tell it like it is. This is part of accountability, the ability to be honest about what we think the problems are. In order to effectively address breakdowns we have to recognize them. Of course, this is more than a declaration. In a group or relationship, it means having a discussion in which everyone provides their perspective, and the group comes to an agreement about the nature of the breakdown and how to fix it. 

Finding Clarity:

How Compassionate Accountability Builds Vibrant Relationships,

Thriving Workplaces, and Meaningful Lives 

By Marc Lesser

Available in April

Business / Self-Help • $18.95

Trade paperback • 208 pp. • 5½ x 8½

ISBN: 978-1-60868-833-3