How to Hold Each Other Accountable and Still Care

When I was young I did not do much reading. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, there was just no time for it between watching basketball on TV and playing basketball every other minute that I was awake. When I entered the fifth grade that all changed because our teacher, Mrs. Katobi was pretty clear that if you wanted to go to sixth grade that some of my time would be spent reading.

I can recall the conversation vividly. “What do you enjoy?” she asked.

“Sports, basketball mostly” I replied, bearing my entire soul to her.

“Good, find a book about a basketball player and give me a report of what you read on Monday.”

“I don’t have any books on basketball players,” I said to her thinking this would be the end of the conversation.

“Fine,” she said, “I will call your mother and tell her you need to go to the library”

And she did.

So instead of shooting hoops after school, my mother drove me to our local library.

Not only that, Mrs. Katobi had phoned ahead and told the librarian I would be looking for a book about a basketball player. The librarian escorted me over to the biography section where it seemed to me like the sheer number of books on the shelf could keep a kid from ever playing basketball or another sport ever again. Just picking one from this vast sea of paper was overwhelming.

On that fateful day in 1973, the librarian at Peoria Heights Library asked me, “Who is your favorite player?”

“Wilt the Stilt Chamberlin,” I replied, thinking no way would there be a book on Chamberlin and I would be back on the court in no time.  

She said, “Let me see. I think there is a book on him that just came in not too long ago.”

“You have got to be kidding me.” I thought to myself.

Walking over to the shelf, she pulls the autobiography, Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-foot Black Millionaire who Lives Next Door, off the shelf.

I have always been thankful for the two main characters in this story; the librarian (I do wish I could recall her name) and Mrs. Katobi.

They knew what was best for me. They cared enough to set a high expectation (at least for a poor kid from the other side of the tracks) and held me accountable. They knew the work I needed to get done and helped me find an interesting way to do it. They did not micromanage the entire work process. Mrs. Katobi cared enough to take some roadblocks out of my way by calling both my mom and the librarian. As I reflect, this really gave me the feeling that she cared enough to make the calls on my behalf.

The bar was set for me, care and compassion were shown, and then it was up to me.

Paul Zak makes an interesting argument about this when he writes in Harvard Business Review and in Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research about the powerful neurochemical oxytocin. According to Zak, colleagues who want to help each other perform better. No matter what you think about people in your organization, the decision to show up is completely voluntary. In our society, people can pretty much do whatever they want to do. Employees are not that different than people who go to church or a grocery store. They, in essence, volunteer to do whatever it is they are going to do.

Sure, in a work organization they are paid. Zak gives insight into this stating that his research shows, “they choose an organization at which to work.” It is in this realization the brain chemical oxytocin comes into play. The culture of your organization can stimulate oxytocin in your employees through all types of engagement where people feel cared for and respected. Alternately, your work environment may feel more like testosterone rules the day, causing people feel driven elsewhere to a place where they are valued and appreciated.

According to Zak, his work with oxytocin shows it is the biochemical basis for the Golden Rule. “If you treat me well, my brain will synthesize oxytocin and this will motivate me to reciprocate.”

When I shared this research, through the lens of Emotional Intelligence, with a client I am working with. He listened intently, nodded his head and said, “Yeah, but...”  In my training as a coach, I know that when I hear the word ‘but” any agreement like the head nodding and the “yeah” has just been discounted to “I DO NOT AGREE”.

Following the “yeah, but,” came “what we need to do is set clear goals and hold our associates feet to the fire to do what they say they are going to do.”

“EXACTLY” I agreed. Holding them accountable with care and compassion will have them want to engage.  

Turns out that is really not the end of the oxytocin story or my story. You see I read the book, did the report turned it in and thought that was it. Assignment finished. Let’s get back out to shooting hoops. However, Mrs. Katobi, probably being the smartest person to ever teach any subject to any student pulled a brilliant move.

“Class,” she said that next week, “I have just read the most fascinating report about a very tall basketball player and I thought you all might enjoy learning about him so, Scott, why don’t you come up and share what you learned about Wilt the Stilt.”

When I finished, they clapped.

According to Zak another big surge in Oxytocin occurs when we celebrate success. In addition, another neurochemical gets released called dopamine which among other things is the brain’s reinforcement chemical.

I wonder if Mrs. Katobi knew at that moment she was creating a lifelong, voracious reader?

How about you? Who at work do you need to show you are in empathetic agreement with? What achievement of some other person do you plan to celebrate in the near future?

Perhaps you know someone who needs to think more deeply about this idea of caring accountability? Why not forward them the link to this article and then invite them to lunch to talk about it?