One of Jamie’s long-time interests has been road cycling, and a couple of years ago, I decided I’d like to take it up, too. As a novice, I appreciated the patience and care Jamie took to teach me the rules of the road and coach me on the physical aspects of riding. When the bike trail was crowded or road conditions were dicey, he got in the habit of riding lead, calling out warnings about approaching traffic or pointing to debris in the road I should avoid. I felt protected and safe when I rode with him.

One morning after a long ride, we passed a construction site where a number of large parked vehicles had narrowed the roadway. I was tired and inattentive. As I turned onto the street leading to home, I looked up just as a large commercial truck cut directly in front of me. Hitting the brakes hard, I swerved, barely avoiding a collision, and skidded down onto a patch of lawn. Jamie had seen the truck and avoided it. He rode on ahead, oblivious to what had happened to me. As my heart settled back into my chest and my panic subsided, I felt furious and betrayed. “Jamie obviously saw that truck coming,” I thought angrily. “I can’t believe he didn’t warn me!”

Even in the moment, I realized it was a childish reaction. It wasn’t his fault I hadn’t been paying proper attention. Upon reflection, it struck me that the incident illustrated the seduction of a phenomenon we call “caretaking.” It’s a dynamic where someone sees themselves as being responsible for another’s welfare, and the other gets complacent about being taken care of instead of taking accountability for their own actions. We frequently see this parent-child dynamic in organizations, particularly in difficult times. Many leaders see themselves as responsible for solving the big problems and reassuring their employees. “Don’t worry,” the message goes. “You just concentrate on doing your job while I look out for the big picture. It’s my job to keep you safe.”

The message is problematic because that promise is impossible to keep, and it sends a not-so-subtle signal to employees that they aren’t really responsible for the success of the business.  Workers who get seduced by this dubious bargain begin thinking their survival is in the hands of others, and that they are off the hook for contributing solutions to real business problems.

Just like the anger generated by my near-accident on the bike, many workers are feeling betrayed and furious today. The economic crash has vaporized jobs and created a deep uncertainty about the future. Finger pointing is an instinctive response. Why didn’t they see it coming? Why didn’t they warn us? How dare they get us into this mess?

I’ve been seeing a lot of that reaction lately in the newspaper industry, where I worked for more than 25 years.  It’s been heart-breaking to see hundreds of my friends and former colleagues get laid off. I was recently reading the comments on a blog after a third round of lay-offs at a paper where I used to work. Most of the people participating in the online conversations were understandably angry, and openly expressed their feelings of betrayal and outrage.  Why didn’t industry leaders plan better, people wrote. How could corporate leaders have failed them so miserably?

One post struck a different tone: Journalists should have seen it coming, the writer contended. The signs were all there. The Internet had been chipping away at newspapers’ subscribers and advertising base for years and newspapers’ old economic model was clearly unsustainable. The post provoked a howl of mostly hostile responses, but the writer had a valid point. In an industry dependent on advertising and subscribers to generate revenue, reinvention is paramount in an era of free, real-time information.

It reminded me of a time in the late 80s when many large retailers were merging. Those stories were well covered on the front pages and in the business sections. Where several supermarkets, auto dealerships and department stores had once purchased full-page ads, suddenly there were only one or two. Yet many journalists (including me) were shocked when the sudden drop in advertising revenue precipitated cost-cutting and lay-offs. We hadn’t been connecting the dots that were there for us to see.

No one can make promises about the future, especially in these difficult, challenging times. But people can choose to be accountable for being forthright about the circumstances they see, whether they are managers or core workers. The key to ending this caretaking cycle is to develop business literacy. People throughout an organization need to understand the business of the business, what is at stake in the marketplace, how success gets measured. Leaders need to make interdependencies visible and help people understand how what they do contributes to success. By tapping into the collective wisdom in the organization, tricky business problems can be resolved more effectively and efficiently. This also provides people an opportunity to help create their own future and a sense of meaning at work. That is far more productive than false reassurances that “we have things under control.”

Workers can stop colluding with caretaking by naively believing that everything will be OK if they just focus on good work. They can choose to be accountable by paying attention, asking questions, getting educated about the marketplace, economic conditions and how they are affecting the business. Everyone in the organization has a hand in creating what exists. To abandon caretaking and create adult cultures of accountability, everyone in an organization needs to acknowledge that they are responsible for the success of the business.

The truth is, I should have seen the truck coming on the road that day. Jamie’s protectiveness had lured me into a dangerous complacency, and it became clear to me in the aftermath that I was putting myself at risk by relying on him to keep me safe. I felt betrayed and furious until I recognized how my lack of awareness contributed to the near-accident. I had failed to choose accountability for the quality of my ride. These days, I’m a lot more attentive on the road.