Free Will and Accountability

February 9, 2017

 

The broadest goal of facilitation is to 'help a group do its best thinking'. What does it mean to think well? While most of us have an inkling what this means for ourselves, the topic gets out of control when we incorporate multiple viewpoints and value systems.
 
But the facilitation must go on. One lens that has come in handy for making sense out of group thinking comes from my days studying the Philosophy of Free Will at UC San Diego.
 
As you might expect, philosophers believe we either have complete control over our actions and decisions (free will), no control over our actions and decisions (determinism), or some mix of the two extremes. The issue can also be stated in terms of cause and effect. Those who mostly believe in free will think that individuals create their own circumstances, while those who mostly believe in determinism think that individuals are the result of outside influences.

 

 

For example, let's say that Marcus gives a sub-par presentation. It occurs to his boss that he hasn't prepared very well. The manager knows he is capable of delivering a good presentation, and expected more from him. The manager decides to give the feedback to Marcus directly in front of the group, telling him that there were several strong aspects of the presentation, but overall it would have really popped with more preparation and polishing.
 
Marcus reacts, "Well, you're right. And I'm sorry about that. I had some stuff come up this week, and I wasn't able to give it as much time as I had hoped."
 
Take a minute and consider how you feel about Marcus' excuse. Are you resigned to accept that things arise that derail our best intentions? Are you piqued that Marcus is reaching for an excuse instead of a solution?
 
Your reaction says something about how you approach accountability, and it also says something about how you view free will. There is no correct value system in regards to free-will. Groups will need to develop their norms around this topic as they grow and develop. The facilitator can help this development in several ways. 

 

 

1.) Positively frame conflicts about free will as an opportunity for discovery

 

2.) Appeal to analysis of the environment and expectations of success to decide the appropriate amount of accountability

 

3.) Help the group create a narrative of progress as their beliefs change and adapt

 

4.) Call out excessively enabling behavior from determinism advocates or excessively punitive behavior from free-will advocates. 

 

 

Item 2 deserves a bit more explanation, as the environment is a key anchor in the real world that prevents an entirely subjective values struggle. Tasks in a controlled environment that have a high expectation of success (think labor and delivery in a hospital) ought to incorporate more free-will into their mindset at work. The environment is controlled to limit variables such as infection, temperature, lighting, etc, and provide clear signals about other variables, such as heart rate, blood pressure and dilation. In such an environment, it’s reasonable to expect a high success rate, and given a healthy mother and baby, it’s reasonable to hold physicians and nurses accountable for unwanted variance.

 

On the other hand, consider the sales process for a commercial insurance agency that relies on large, infrequent sales. This business setting has a low expectation of success and a high number of uncontrollable variables. There is no one to blame if rain derails an 18-hole outing, and the prospective client decides she must return home to make sure her cat can come inside. Even if it doesn’t rain, getting the client to commit to the next phase can be influenced by too many unforeseen circumstances, and it’s unreasonable to expect success every time. 

 

While most companies and people select work that aligns with their personal world-view, in my experience there is a surprising amount of variance in belief that calls for good facilitation. 

 

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