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We hear words like "accountability" and "leadership" getting thrown around a lot in business, but we generally don't truly understand what these terms mean until we make that big blunder... which isn't always necessarily a bad thing.
Allow me to share with you all a recent experience of mine that taught me a valuable lesson about speaking out against practices that are believed to be based in leadership, but in actuality are missing the one element that separates the boss from the leader: accountability. In order to protect the innocent, I will not reveal any names nor specify the exact circumstances of this experience.
About a year ago, I was hired as a Technical Editor that would be in charge of substantive as well as copy edits of a script for a multimedia project. My other tasks included mentoring the writers on their style and content, ensuring that programming cues in the software engine being used for the project were aligned with the script, and maintaining the agency's blog with editorials and project updates. I certainly had quite the hefty plate on my hands; however, for the purpose of this piece, I will solely be sharing the incident surrounding my main role.
In the beginning, both myself and the Lead Editor were active participants in brainstorming story ideas; unfortunately, the Lead Editor had to take a Leave of Absence early on due to personal obligations, so I took up part of their position while one of the veteran writers was promoted to Deputy Director and assumed the other half. Throughout this time, the writers were regularly consulting with me on their progress.
From March of this year onwards, I slowly began to notice changes in the overall team dynamic. I was scheduling less sessions with writers, and I became increasingly isolated from group meetings. What's more, constant changes to the narrative were being made, forcing all of us to adapt at superhuman rates. Only problem was, I wasn't aware of any changes whatsoever until one the writers would notify me whenever they occurred. This, of course, made my job obsolete, because not only were the writers essentially relying on their own biases and limited scope to move things along, I also had no context through which to properly provide feedback and help establish a standard for each writer's part.
The interesting detail in all this is that the changes were happening at the same time our Director decided to take a break from the project. There was much speculation as to whether there were creative differences between them and the Deputy Director as well as several other writers. Naturally, this raised yet another red flag for me.
Eventually, despite the fact that I'd put myself out there several times if the writers needed another perspective and approach to their work, I felt that I might as well resign if the writers would much rather work self-sufficiently and self-indulgently. In fact, I would have accepted this if the Deputy Director had told me the demand for editors was declining, and that we could instead shift our focus towards other tasks. I would have been content with handling PR duties, something that was severely lacking at the time.
In hindsight, anyway.
I will admit that I should have openly expressed my feelings to the team before deciding to quit, as I could have potentially learned more about and understood their mindset behind these new changes—not just in the project, but also in their mentality, which could have possibly led to opportunities for compromise.
At the same time, however, I don't regret leaving right then and there, because the Deputy Director's response was what made me realize that this environment was not for me. I found out that they were in constant contact with every other staff member except for me and the Lead Editor upon their return. They also downplayed my efforts, particularly where advice in storytelling and the rewriting of drafts were concerned.
Instead of fully accepting responsibility for their actions and offering to explore solutions that might alleviate the tension, they simply expressed their "considerable understanding" as to why I might have felt this way, but then nevertheless subtly turned it all back on me. They did not outright admit that they have been demonstrating a lack of transparency, and they denied that they were making any major changes to the whole project aside from a few drafts of one part of it.
They expected enough reliability on the part of their team members in that they would tell them if something was wrong or needed to change, but they themselves did not reciprocate. They just dismissed me without stepping back to internalize and reflect on why I—as well as the Lead Editor and another writer, both of whom spoke out on this as well—was saying all of this.
It is so important for team dynamics to be collaborative and not arbitrary, not to mention dissonant. It is never a good idea to endure capricious and unstable work behaviours and decisions; otherwise, communications and optimism will deteriorate. Thus, I'd like to offer my personal tips on accountability in the multimedia storytelling industry for any prospective leaders, as well as those who work with or would like to work with leaders.
Tip #1: Limit yourself to only one or two major changes in your narrative, and leave the rest for only minor details, if you truly feel after a general consensus that the idea simply isn't feasible or doesn't correspond with your goals as an agency. We've seen it with movies and video games, among other forms of media; development "hell" and mediocre to poor end products result from no faith in any ideas and therefore a diminished value for the project.
You might be asking, "How does this relate to accountability?" It's worth it to at least try and be creative with what you have before deciding to scrap it, because changing your mind all the time will negatively affect the performance and creativity of your colleagues. The lack of commitment and consistency will be evident in the work, and you will need to be prepared to take responsibility for that.
Tip #2: Make sure you have a complete understanding of what each role of your team entails. For example, editors are not just there to proofread your work after it's all said and done. While the job can be supplemented, it certainly cannot be replaced by other writers who will not always be able to catch the errors in their own thought processes, in addition to thoroughly grasping the technicalities, continuities, and structuring that can improve the strength, impact, and the point of the text on time. It is the responsibility of any leader to ensure that as fewer team members as possible aren't resorting to quick confirmation bias or anything of the sort, and are dedicating consultation sessions with the team's expert in that particular area.
Which also somewhat segues into...
Tip #3: Research the elements of your project, and by extension your audience, in order to figure out the optimal method for engaging your audience with a uniquely tailored and inventive experience. Fact checking alone isn't always going to save you from making mistakes. My old team, for instance, was always making assumptions about our audience without actually getting to know their expectations, interests, and knowledgeability. They were only focused on emulating similar projects, and without taking it further to boot. Take responsibility in knowing the demographic of your audience and being able to explain your artistic choices, as well as decision-making processes through a well-thought-out research agenda and education. This is why establishing the goals of your business is extremely crucial.
Tip #4: The moment you feel that roles will not always be constant is when you need to consult with your teammates early in the game, to avoid confusion later on. This will show that you value their contributions and would still like to ensure their inclusion—not to mention giving them opportunities to shine in other jobs that may be useful for their personal growth and your business. It is also a great way to build and maintain trust in one another when it comes to urgency in the workplace.
And finally, the most important one...
Tip #5: Much like in any field, you need to be transparent about all of this and any other issues that may arise. Admit that you might need to better comprehend the scale of your project. Admit that you maybe need to work on finding common ground with your colleagues. Admit that you, honestly, probably need to learn more about your industry.
Don't just assume that you know what you're doing at all times, and instead really consider the feedback from your team and the audience. Don't declare that it's always the responsibility of your coworkers to initiate the conversation with you; it goes both ways.
Once you're able to come to terms with these factors, they make it much easier to strategize improvements for both the project output and the team's health. Times are forever a-changing, and so will problem solving. It's best to get to know your environment and learn to balance both incorporation and adaptation. This will be enough to show you care.
And as I said, it's a two way street. So coworkers, don't be passive. If you sense one or a combination of these incidents happening at the office, don't be afraid to speak up. Of course, be subtle and civilized about it. But you definitely shouldn't allow it to go unaddressed, as doing so may contribute to the damage later on.
A few weeks after I left, the team released a progress update outlining: the editors' leave in a professional and respectable manner, the addition of a new writer, the details behind the changes in their direction, achievements, and their plans moving forward. I was genuinely pleased to read all this, as it seemed that the Deputy Editor may have paid attention to my concerns after all.
I will say that it does sometimes take time to process something, as it is vital to carefully consider it before impulsively acting upon it. Realizing that maybe there is a point to it gives you a better idea of what to do next. While we may not have been compatible, we still walked away from this experience with a positive takeaway.
I hope that my story has resonated with you in some way, or at the very least that you'll find these tips helpful to keep in mind when you engage in collaborative projects. I wish you much luck on your endeavours!