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What Is Accountability?

by David Brock on August 17th, 2022

We discuss accountability a lot, but do we really understand what it is, are we agreed on what it is?

As I started to write this post, I went to the dictionary. Frankly, it wasn’t helpful. Merriam Webster’s definition was, in fact, more confusing than helpful:

Definition of accountability: the quality or state of being accountable. Especially: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.

Responsibility and accountability may overlap a little, but are different.

I prefer the following as a definition of accountability:

Ownership of your commitments and doing what you commit to do.

It’s that simple. We make commitments to others–for example to our customers, following up on commitments we make in a meeting. These commitments have an element of a task, who we are doing this for, and a date by which we have stated we will meet the commitment.

We make commitments to our managers and teammates. The most obvious is achieving a quota. Others might be how we do the work. Some of you may say, “Well I never made that commitment, my manager told me I had to do it.” But the reality is that by accepting a job, you are committing to do the things required in that job. If you don’t like these commitments, you are doing yourself and those that count on you a disservice, you should go somewhere where you are enthusiastic about the commitments you make.

We make commitments to ourselves. It may be around professional development, or our families, our communities, or something as simple as exercise or losing weight.

Meeting our commitments is the basis for establishing and building trust. If we do not meet our commitments, we can never build trust. If we don’t hold ourselves accountable, no one else can, so we become untrustworthy.

We sometimes fail to meet our commitments. That’s on us, blaming others for our inability to meet commitments is an accountability failure. Stuff happens, we won’t meet all our commitments. Unanticipated things arise; despite how hard we try, we sometimes fail. Sometimes, we need help, coaching, or other support; we need to actively seek these to help us meet our commitments. But our commitments are our commitments. We do everything we can to meet them. When we fail, we own it, we learn from it, we move forward.

As Yoda wisely states: “Do or do not, there is no try.”

Being accountable is a personal choice–someone else cannot make us accountable. We choose what we commit to, in doing so, we choose to be accountable. Some might be surprised with this, many think, “Well my manager assigns all these things, she sets my quota, metrics, and goals. She tells me what I have to do. I have no choice in this, I have to do what I’m told.”

The reality is, until own these commitments for ourselves, we can’t hold ourselves accountable for them. If we disagree with anything our managers want us to be accountable for, we must come to agreement with managers on what they mean, why it’s important, and what it means to us. Unless we can commit to these things, accountability is meaningless.

This is a mistake managers make too often. They confuse and conflate several things. They may be responsible for the conduct and performance of the team, but each team member is accountable for delivering on the commitments, made to others. Sometimes, managers try to be in control, often in doing so they remove the accountability from the people, making themselves accountable.

But our personal success, that of the organizations we work for and with, and of our society is built on accountability. Things work, based on “our” being accountable and everyone else being accountable.

We are accountable to each other. We and our customers make progress based on the commitments we, each, make and our commitments to meet those. Within our organizations, we are accountable for doing our jobs, for collaborating, supporting each other, and working together.

Are you accountable?

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