Accountability and Consequences in an Intentional Community
Knock knock! There’s a sharp rap at the door.
I open it to Larry, another community member.
“It’s me, ‘Sharkey,’” he says in a fake tough-guy accent. “I’m heah ta let ya know ya owe $84 on ya tractor bill. Ya gonna pay up o’ wat?”
“Uh, hello…‘Sharkey,’” I say, inviting Larry in. “I thought I paid it! I’ll write a check right now!”
Egads, how embarrassing. I’d arranged for some work on my driveway from a neighbor using the community tractor months before. And completely forgot to pay for it.
“We emailed ya,” Larry adds, staying in character as he came in and sat down. “But ya nevah paid it.
“I’m on da Accountability Team, see,” he continues, “and dis is da foist consequence—we visit ya an’ ask ya ta pay up.”
This was actually pretty funny. I was the one who’d suggested that our community adopt a “graduated series of consequences” process for accountability in the first place (I had learned about this process from a spiritually oriented community in Vancouver). We’d passed the proposal to do this just a month before. We created our own series of consequences to encourage some of our members to better comply with our agreements and obligations. Our first consequence was for one community member to talk with the person who broke the agreement. And…the very first time we applied the first consequence, it was to me. Hilarious. (Playing “Sharkey” with a gangster accent was Larry’s own creative touch.) I paid my overdue tractor bill and Sharkey and I had a laugh about it.
Why Does a Community Even Need Consequences?
As you know if you live in community, it’s especially painful when someone consistently doesn’t keep the group’s agreements, fulfill its obligations, or violates its basic behavioral norms even once, or refuses to make the changes the community repeatedly requests about their behavior or communication style. However, people new to community or who’ve never lived in one sometimes believe that bad habits, negative attitudes, or hurtful behaviors will somehow be left at the gate―since, many people new to community believe, if it’s really community everyone gets along well, keeps all community agreements, and fulfills all obligations. And these naïve, misinformed folks are usually the first to feel outraged when anyone suggests ways to help everyone keep the group’s agreements. Since in community everyone just naturally does the right thing. Oops!
The most common agreements and behavior norms people might violate concern parking, quiet hours, cleanliness of shared areas, or behavior of children or pets; not fulfilling required labor hours or paying community dues and fees; or indulging in abusive language or actions, various kinds of substance abuse, or harming the community in some way: legally, financially, in terms of its reputation, and so on.
When this happens and there is no remedy, the person can be perceived as a kind of “community aristocrat,” since clearly the agreements everyone else keeps don’t apply to them. If there is no recourse to deal with the rule-breakers, people who do keep the agreements can feel resentful and discouraged. If this goes on too long they can get so discouraged and demoralized—“Why did I even join a community?”—they often stop participating in the community and sometimes eventually leave it altogether.
A graduated series of consequences is intended to help people who consistently break the group’s agreements (or do something awful), rather than those who break an agreement once in a while. The approach is designed to encourage accountability—not by punitive measures or fines, not by shaming or blaming—but through a series of fair, compassionate, incremental consequences, from mild to increasingly serious, which treat the person respectfully while also asking them to make necessary changes and resolve the problem. It is possible to say, “We want you to follow our agreements,” or, “We don’t want you to do that,” in ways that are direct and emotionally authentic while honoring the person’s dignity. And it’s possible to do this even if the last-resort consequence when nothing changes after a series of consequences is being asked to leave the community.
When all else fails, this kind of respectful yet increasingly potent peer pressure can give the person the needed inducement to change.
Requests for Compliance, Offers of Help
In a graduated series of consequences one or more community representatives asks the person who has consistently broken agreements to comply with community agreements again. The representatives inquire whether the person needs help of some kind. Did they have a sudden unexpected expense or illness, painful difficulty in their family or at work, an illness or death of someone close to them? And if so, how could the community help? If the broken agreement involves community labor or dues and fees and the person can’t resolve the issue immediately, a date could be set in the near future by which the person should do the work or pay the money. People from the community’s Care Team or Process Committee could do this, or the group could create an Accountability Team just for this purpose.
If the person complies with the agreement or stops the undesirable behavior, great! The method worked and no more action is taken. The person is not shamed or blamed and no one throws it up to them later by saying something like, “Hey, we had to get the first consequence after you!” That is not how the method is designed. Rather it’s designed so that when a consequence resolves the problem the community forgives, forgets, and moves on.
What a Graduated Series of Consequences Can Look Like
Here is an example of the kinds of incremental consequences a community can create.
First Consequence: One community member asks the person not keeping the agreement to comply with it again. This is what Larry, as “Sharkey,” did with me.
If the person does comply (or stops doing an undesirable behavior), great! The first consequence was effective. No further action is taken.
Second Consequence: If the person continues to break the agreement (or do an undesirable behavior), a small group, perhaps three or four people, asks them to comply with it again or stop the behavior (like having three or four Sharkeys at the door).
Third Consequence: If this still doesn’t resolve the problem, it may mean the person has a chronic difficulty in keeping agreements in general. Or it may simply mean they’ve had some unexpected challenging circumstances and it may not be a characteristic pattern at all.
In any case, the community still doesn’t give up on them. The community creates an informal written contract with the member (“informal”—no lawyers needed) outlining how in several steps over the next few months the person will resolve the issue, with periodic meetings with one or more other community members to help the person stay on track and abide with the contracted steps to resolve the issue.
Fourth Consequence: If the issue is still not resolved, it could be that nothing will remedy the situation and the person has a serious problem. Please don’t assume, as many community newcomers do, that with enough community support—heartshares, talking stick circles, mediations, or hugs—the person will heal their deep-seated patterns and change. I think this is unrealistic. The person needs effective outside professional help. And Yes, a community can suggest or request this, but…the person may not see why it’s needed, feel dreadfully insulted, and not seek the help.
In the hope that the problem actually can be resolved though, in the fourth consequence the group holds a community meeting about the issue. Each participant shares how the person’s not keeping the agreement has affected them, and they might express any emotions this triggered in them. (While it would be ideal for people to use the neutral language of Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication and simply describe their feelings and which unmet values or needs gave rise to them, not every community member is skilled at this. Some people may be so annoyed they end up speaking forcefully or even harshly to the agreement-breaker.) The person also tells the group what’s been going on with them, if there’ve been circumstances that diminished their ability to keep agreements.
At this meeting the group puts the person on “membership probation.” This means if the person doesn’t keep the agreement or stop the undesirable behavior by a certain date (which, given how much time has passed since the first consequence, may be just a few days), the fifth consequence occurs.
If the person doesn’t attend the meeting, it is still held
, for the benefit of everyone else, and the person is given notes from or an audio or video recording of the meeting.
Fifth Consequence: If the person still hasn’t resolved the problem by the given date, then, in the final, “last resort” consequence, their community membership is revoked and they’re asked to leave the group. [Asking someone to leave the community is not possible or legal in US or Canadian communities in which people own and have deeds to their housing units, apartments, lots, or houses—such as in most cohousing communities—since property rights trump internal community agreements. An exception would be communities owned as housing co-ops, in which it is legal to choose one’s members and, if needed, to ask them to leave.]
It is certainly drastic to put a member on probation status, which means if they don’t resolve the problem they will be asked to leave. When the violation is severe enough or the conflict too wrenching, by a fourth or fifth consequence with no resolution, the group needs to get realistic. Sometimes increasingly public consequences are the only way to protect your community from the devastatingly low morale that can occur in this situation.
Again, this example shows how a community could create a series of consequences. The group could create fewer or more steps or different consequences.
The Secret Reason this Process Works
When I ask people in my workshops why they think this method is effective, most people say something like, “Because each consequence is more visible and impactful than the previous one, and people want to avoid the next one!”
True in principle, but a more subtle reason is at work here. It’s not because a rule-breaker might get a knock at their door as I did. It’s simply because the group’s agreed-on series of consequences exists. Just knowing the community has this process itself deters people from breaking agreements. People don’t want to get a knock at the door by one fellow community member, much less three or four. And they sure don’t want to have a whole community meeting about it!
Do We Even Need to Apply this Process?
Strangely enough, after a community adopts a series of consequences they may never have to use them, since from then on people tend keep their agreements.
Or maybe they only have to apply the first, relatively mild consequence, like what I got; or maybe with only one or two members, if needed. The knowledge that we now have a method of ever-increasing community visibility and peer pressure has a remarkable deterrent effect. After the first or at most two consequences are applied to one or more community members, amazingly, from then on almost everyone honors the group’s agreements.
The Community Eye—“As if all the world were watching…”
I think of a series of consequences as the practical application of what I call the “Community Eye”—each consequence gives increasing visibility to the person’s transgressions and increasing numbers of fellow community members know about it. Broken agreements or violations of community norms that are kept hidden and secret by a well-meaning community often persist in the dark, sometimes for years. But shine the light of everyone knowing about and people suddenly behave better—significantly more likely to keep agreements, fulfill obligations, and become more collaborative community citizens. Most of us have a deep desire to be respected, trusted, and liked by our peers. When we know people are watching, as scientific research confirms, we behave better. [For articles citing scientific research supporting this, see “How being watched changes you,” by Jason G. Goldman, February 10, 2015, BBC Future, or “How the Illusion of Being Observed Can Make You a Better Person,” Sander van der Linden, May 3, 2011, Scientific American.]
Even Thomas Jefferson observed this, writing, “Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching.” Over the last 15 years I’ve suggested the graduated series of consequences method (and shared a template for creating one) with communities all over the world. For as Thomas Jefferson, Sharkey, and I know first-hand, the “Community Eye” is a powerful motivator.
Excerpted from the Fall 2019 edition of Communities, “The Shadow Side of Cooperation”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.