The Problem With Accountability

In truth, January 1 is no different than any other day of the year. And yet, it holds a remarkable power for fresh starts and cleansing. Many of us dare to dream, seeing the New Year as a blank slate upon which we can write the story of our life. Whether we believe it’s possible or not, it’s a beginning — a beginning that, for a glimmer of time we tell ourselves we have the power to control; the power to create; the power to bend to our will. Then comes January 17th: “Ditch The New Year’s Resolution Day.” The date believed to be the point in this new beginning the highest number of people will realize it’s just another version of each year before, nothing really changes, there are too many factors beyond our control, and to hell with those damn resolutions. “I didn’t really mean it anyway.”

And yet, the secret to success is remarkably simple, though consistently misunderstood and misused. 

Accountability. 

You want your resolutions in business and in life to succeed? Be held accountable. 

But why are people so resistant to accountability? 

It’s supposed to be a good thing, right? 

Well, one thing I’ve noticed: Accountability is often used as a weapon, when it should be used as a tool. It’s a bit like having an expensive piece of cutlery — perfect for gourmet meals, but it can also be used to mortally wound someone. Yikes. And accountability is often used for the injury rather than the nourishment, both in the workplace and at home. 

Too often, accountability is saved for too late in the game, when we’re beyond the point of no return. Our ‘accountability’ often sounds like this: 

“We’re up against the wire and it’s not working! Make it work or else!”  

“We agreed this was your responsibility, you made the mistake — fix it!”  

“So, you didn’t go to the gym again this week, did you?!” 

No wonder accountability scares the crap out of us; it shines a harsh and glaring light on our weaknesses, shortcomings and failures. That’s why we don’t really tell anyone about our resolutions; they might ask us about them and point out that we’re failing.

On the other hand, I’ve watched some of the most kind people, in the name of kindness say, “We’ll just check in with them when it’s time.” They believe they are granting the person freedom, when really they’re cultivating an environment with no communication — and a fear or resistance of asking for help. Whether it’s with our children, our team, or ourselves, accountability is not something that should only come at the end of a project. But it’s not something that should take on the personality of micro-management either. It’s a regular and consistent check in to see how things are going for assessment, not blame, and like the canary in the coal mine, it can give us early warning signs that things might not be going well — but at a time when we can do something about it.  

By checking in early, it’s never about the person’s abilities or worth — and always about the goal and what needs to be done to achieve it. If you check in early and regularly, you can provide or ask for help before it’s too late, and someone is left holding the bag. It’s balancing your checkbook every week, instead of at the end of the year — and finding out you lost $10,000 in February. It’s checking up on the tomatoes while they’re still green on the vine and noticing the aphids starting to gather. It’s checking in before a project is complete to see how it’s going, and maintaining healthy relationships with your team. Asking: what do you need? Is it working? Is it not? How can we help? If we’re checking in on a regular basis, nothing can surprise us at the end, and accountability is no longer a threat, but an empowering & helpful tool.

We lose our way when we are struggling and don’t believe we can ask for help, because doing so will cause us harm, embarrassment, humiliation, or our job. As leaders of ourselves and others, we need to shift our definition. A leader’s job is to make sure your team has what they need, can hit their targets, has time to solve their problems and recover from any mistakes, checks in along the way, and adjusts accordingly. Create and foster a culture of communication, collaboration and engagement — in that culture, accountability isn’t blaming; it’s collaborative. And then, when the 17th rolls around and you realize you haven’t gone to the gym once, accountability doesn’t humiliate you. It asks: when will you start? What gets in your way? What do you need? How can I help?

Coaching makes a great accountability partner. How can I help you?