The Case of the Half-Cut Tree; How We View Accountability

There’s a tree across the street from where I live that looks like it’s half of what it should be. 

the half-cut tree

The tree’s trunk is rooted on an empty lot.  Its leafy side hangs over a street intersection. 

The tree’s leafy branches press down on telephone & internet cables.  Over the years, especially when the wind is blowing, the branches force the cables to snap.  We’ve lost telephone landline service several times as a result. 

One day, a contractor working for the power utility company MERALCO (short for Manila Electric Company), came by and started trimming the tree’s branches.  He trimmed the few branches on the side of the tree that didn’t touch the telephone wires.  When I asked if he could prune the branches pressing on the telephone wires, he said he couldn’t.  His contract with MERALCO covered cutting tree branches touching electric cables but not those belonging to the telecom companies.  And since there were no MERALCO cables where the telephone wires were, he had no authority to cut anything there.  I should just call the owner of the lot to fix the problem, he said.

The problem was I didn’t know the owner of the empty lot.  I haven’t seen anyone on that empty lot for years. 

I called the phone company and reported about the tree branches endangering their wires.  The man on the other end of the phone said the phone company couldn’t cut the branches.  The phone company does not have a permit from the Philippine government’s Department of Environment & Natural Resources (DENR) to cut tree branches.  The phone company cannot justify a permit, the man said, because their cables pose no danger to the tree.  The MERALCO contractor, the man added, probably has a DENR permit because the electric cables are high-voltage and may pose a risk to the tree. 

In other words, I can’t ask either the MERALCO contractor or the phone company to trim the tree and free the telephone wires from the pressing branches.  The MERALCO contractor went on to trim the tree from one end but would not cut the tree on the other side. The tree therefore looks cut in half with a leafy side matched by an empty space on the other. 

One day a city engineer’s crew in a truck passed by, inspecting the street lights.  I approached the crew and asked them if they can do something about the tree branches.  The crew chief said he’ll look into it.  A few days later he came back and promised to trim the tree.  It’s been two (2) weeks and he hasn’t come back. 

Who’s accountable for the telephone wires?  The phone company owns the wires but they won’t touch the tree.  They’ll repair the telephone wires when they snap but they won’t trim the tree to prevent it from happening. 

Who should trim the tree branches?  Both the MERALCO contractor and the phone company said the owner of the empty lot should be the one responsible to cut the tree.  It doesn’t mean though he should be responsible for the telephone wires. 

What’s the role of the city government and the DENR? I imagine that the the city hall people do not consider themselves accountable for either the tree or the telephone wires.  The city government would be concerned about safety and well-being of residents but they wouldn’t touch the tree if there’s no apparent risk.  As for the DENR, they’d rather no one do anything to the tree. 

The case of the half-cut tree represents the state of accountability in society today.   To put it bluntly, we avoid accountability. 

Saying that people avoid accountability is a matter of personal opinion.  But from experience and observation, we try as much as we could to not take in added responsibility, unless there’s an incentive or reward to be had. 

First reason:  it’s human nature.  When we were children, most of us would blame someone else for our misbehaviour.   This is to evade punishment or to look good.  “It’s not our fault, it’s hers!”, we’d exclaim when our parents catch us doing something wrong. 

Second reason:  We have become more defensive.  Thanks to social media and all the finger-pointing, trolling, and blown-up scandals that come with it, we have become more careful about what we say and do.  People can see more of what we’re doing and question and criticise us for it.  We have seen people’s reputations damaged or their careers side-lined because they said or did something someone didn’t agree with. 

We therefore hesitate to accept new challenges, ones that especially bring us out of our comfort zones.  We fear criticisms or worse, legal and social consequences for volunteering ideas or joining a cause. 

In business, enterprise executives look out for their interests before deciding on an initiative.  Executives and managers rather work within their turfs rather than venture with other departments.  Employees don’t go beyond their job descriptions, and if they don’t know what their job descriptions are, they’ll demand it be clarified before they proceed to work.    

Third Reason:  We have become more individualistic.  Teamwork should mean people working together.  But in the real world, it has become synonymous to delegating and performance evaluation. 

We see teamwork in sports such as when basketball players pass the ball and assist one another to score.  We see it in religious organisations when we see choirs practice singing together.  But we hardly see it in every day work in which managers simply farm out tasks to subordinates and assign them deadlines and criteria for success. 

We have become more careful of what we commit as a result.  As much as possible, we don’t commit if we could.  Better if we don’t join a team.  We’d rather work on our own rather than risk getting more to do that we’d be condemned later for if we don’t finish on time or completely.

It’s ironic that enterprises invest in team building workshops in which employees participate in exercises together only for them to go back to their workplaces to toil on individual commitments. 

Fourth Reason:  Performance management has focused more on individuals than on the teams.  We manage performance more on the parts than on the whole. 

Management philosophy at the turn of the 21st century has shifted towards scorecards and metrics.  Key performance measurement has become the enterprises’ go-to method to getting things done. 

Managers, however, have been emphasising individual performance than team achievement.  When an enterprise applies the basic features of a SMART-C performance metric, in which it has to be specific, measurable, show who’s accountable, realistic, time-bound, & challenging, they drop them on the lap of individual employees, not on teams.  If teams themselves present scorecards, it’s the team leader who’s usually made accountable.  He gets the glory if he makes it; he gets the reprimand if he doesn’t. 

Backers of key performance indices, KPI’s, may disagree with what I just said.   Scorecards are designed for teams not individuals, they’d say.  That is true.  But from what I’ve seen, enterprises have remained focused on individuals when it comes to performance evaluation.  Hardly does one see an executive evaluate a team together.    

And because of this, individuals work on the measures they’re evaluated on than on the overall standards of the organisations they work for.  And that’s assuming if they even know what those standards are, or if they care. 

It is these four reasons why I believe the tree outside my residence will remain cut in half.  One side trimmed and not in any way endangering the electric power cables, the other side left untrimmed with branches ready to snap the service out of my telephone line. 

The phone company, the MERALCO contractor, the owner of the empty lot, the city, the DENR, and I will not volunteer to prune the tree.  It requires a joint team effort among all the parties.  And it looks like it’s not going to happen because of the four (4) reasons stated above. 

Accountability has become a bad word for many people.  We don’t want more of what we already have and if we can avoid it, we will. 

The best solution to reverse the accountability avoidance trend is to bring back old-fashioned team work.  You know, the one where people come together and work together as a group?  If it can be done in sports and religious organisations, then why not in every day work?

Easier said than done, yeah, especially with a virus forcing people apart.  But if we can somehow recognise the need to be together to get something done together, why not indeed?   

About Overtimers Anonymous

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