A guy walks into a room. His mind instantly starts scanning the environment.
“Do people here like me? Is anyone out to get me? Is anyone here capable of hurting me?” he asks himself.
Nope, this isn’t a spy movie.
This is reality — it’s how everyone’s mind works as we enter new situations.
When we walk into new settings, our brains automatically scan for two factors: warmth and competence. Everything else is subordinate to these two important issues as we enter a social situation.
Essentially, your brain asks, “Do people here care about me? Can I trust their motives or do they intend me harm?”
Then, your brain seeks to gauge competence, “Are they competent enough to carry out their ill intentions?”
We automatically make this assessment every time we’re in a new situation — including situations where we’re held accountable.
Accountability & Amygdalas
Think about conversations where we aim to hold someone accountable: you need to confront a coworker who made a choice that negatively affected the team, you’re addressing an HR issue where someone violated their contract, or you’re dealing with your kid who broke the rules.
Consider the conversation from their perspective.
As they enter the conversation, they’re attuned to those two questions: “Do they mean me harm? Can they carry it out?”
To illustrate this, check out this little brain study.
First, take a look at these images:
How many can you list in 10 seconds?
Now look at these images:
What images do you recall from this set?
You likely remembered more images in the second round — images like nooses, guns, snakes, and hand grenades.
Why? A different part of your brain is activated: the amygdala. This almond-sized sliver of your brain controls an enormous number of neurotransmitters. Plus, the amygdala can seize your attention whenever it needs to. When you see knives, hand grenades, and snakes, the amygdala pays attention. It identifies those stimuli and responds.
In moments of accountability, that’s the part of our brain that’s first in control — it’s scanning for threats. The amygdala is on high alert. If it knows that you’re about to be held accountable and perceives an emotionally-threatening situation, all it needs is neutral data to assume that it’s still at risk.
Focus on Emotional Connection
So, how do we hold someone accountable when their brain is literally looking for any reason not to trust you? When we need to hold someone accountable, we must focus on the real goal of these moments: emotional connection. If you tell me what I did was wrong, bad, or dumb, I feel threatened… so I disconnect.
The amygdala doesn’t just scan for physical threats — it also scans for emotional threats. The amygdala looks for a twitch of the eyebrow, a crinkle of the nose, or a break in eye-contact. If it notices these signals, it tells the brain, “It’s not warm here.” And if it perceives the other person as competent enough to carry out their malicious intent, it sends us into “fight or flight” mode.
Think about having an accountability conversation with your coworker, employee, or family member under these circumstances. You say, “That was a bad choice.” Their amygdala sends signals of an emotional threat. They either enter fight mode and combat everything else you say, or they enter flight mentality and shut down.
This won’t be a productive conversation.
Shame vs. Truth
If we want to hold people accountable, we can’t focus on what they did wrong. We have to focus on emotional connection. Only after we connect emotionally can they absorb truth.
This is good news! People don’t fear truth — people fear shame.
It’s possible for us to absorb truth — to even acknowledge responsibility and accountability — but we have to get there the right way, through safety and emotional connection.
Shame isn’t just about you despising me; it’s about me despising me. If I enter a conversation that shames someone, I encourage them to shame themselves — and that’s the most profound shame.
So what’s your job? When you need to hold someone accountable, your job is to connect emotionally, and thereby help them reconnect with themselves emotionally.
When we’re emotionally connected, we can absorb truth. We can be open to seeing our choices for what they are. Only then can we take responsibility for our actions and make different choices in the future.