So often accountability is thought of in terms of punishment or consequences. What if there was a whole other way to relate to accountability that led to different results? Such as: holding people to their best? That shift in approach can make all the difference in how one receives feedback when you are holding them ‘accountable.’

So often people never manage to quite live the life they want because of their daily struggle with holding themselves, and others, to account. They fail to follow through with their most important priorities. Building your accountability muscle will help you live a far more successful and nourishing life. If you master accountability, your whole life will change for the better.

Accountability is a much used word we hear daily in life but what does it really mean and how can you master it?

What’s the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the word ‘accountability’?

Do words like freedom, space, happiness, headspace, and joy come to mind?

Or do words like trapped, constrained, control, restricted, and authority enter your thoughts?

Whatever came up for you when answering the question gives some good clues as to your relationship to accountability. And whether you relate to it in a healthy way or not.

Here’s a simple definition that should help you.

Accountability = getting sh** done in a busy world.

That’s it.

What were you expecting? Some long-winded article about the origins of the word, where it came from, and how it’s misinterpreted the world over? If that’s what you’re looking for, then this post isn’t going to help you.

Having said that, the origins of words can sometimes help add colour and definition.

Accountability = the state of being accountable, liable or answerable.

Here’s what the Oxford Dictionary says:

Being answerable to someone.

This is powerful.

Who, right now in your life, are you answerable to?

Chances are there are very few people. Maybe your boss, if you have a job. But, if you’re the boss, who are you answerable to? Probably nobody.

Now take a step back from the present day and think back over your life … who have you been answerable to over the course of your life?

In other words, who has held you accountable? Parents? Teachers? Caregivers? Employers?

Did you have happy and healthy times with the people who were your role models for accountability?

When you think back, do you smile and get all fuzzy inside? Does it make you feel happy to think of these memories? Or does it bring up a feeling of regret, dislike, resentment, and being controlled?

Whatever it is that comes up for you, and everyone is different, these elements of your conditioning have helped create your relationship to accountability, or being answerable, that lives inside of you today.

A lot of people relate to accountability as being controlled by something or someone in an unhealthy way.

Is control a ‘bad’ thing? For most people, yes.

The sad thing is that the majority of us think that control = less freedom. Actually, the opposite is true.

Control gives much needed structure so you can focus on the most important elements in your life, giving you complete freedom to express all of who you are into key areas ─ things that mean the most. Having this laser-like focus makes getting to your next level all the easier.

Healthy accountability helps people grow so they can live the life they want.

Pause for a minute and reflect, who — right now — holds you accountable in a healthy way in your life?

Anybody? Do you have a personal trainer, a mentor, a coach?

If you have someone, or several people, then take a moment to reflect and think what it is that they do, specifically, that helps bring the best out of you?

It’s likely they show care, empathy, consideration. At the same time, they don’t aim to just please you by saying what you want to hear – they hold your feet to the fire. They help you move toward the things you say you want in life, right? They give you what you want and what you need (even if it’s not always comfortable).

Now, pause again, and think of the people in your life that you are responsible for holding to account? Your children? Your team? Your clients?

How do you hold them to account? Is history repeating itself by your holding them to account the same way you were held up to account growing up?

The more you practice holding people around you accountable in a healthier way your inner-accountability muscle will become stronger.

Isn’t that amazing? And so, so simple!

Now it’s time for practice.

Pick one person you’re responsible for holding accountable and commit to improving.

How do you do that?

Well, one of the best things to do here is to practice coaching them by asking questions so they can find the answer inside themselves, rather than just tell them what you want.

For example, let’s say you have somebody working for you that struggles with delivering on agreements, and doesn’t particularly respond well to being held to account. Sound familiar?

The first thing to do is to get curious as to why this is happening and dig around to help them discover why they should follow through with the things you’re holding them accountable for – so they can see what’s in it for them.

This is the ‘self interest’ piece. If they have no idea on ‘why’ they should do what you’ve asked them to do and how it’s going to impact their life in a positive way, they won’t do it! Or they’ll do it in an uninterested, half-assed kind of way that won’t help anyone.

You have to help people discover the benefit for themselves. As humans, we are acting in ‘self-interest’ mode 100% of the time (even if we’re not conscious of it). Use this to help people bring the best out of themselves.

Let’s say a manager or company owner has an employee who reports to them, called John, who has not followed through with the agreements he made last week. Here’s a way this might be approached.

Firstly, the manager suggests a meeting.

Then, in the meeting, they approach the conversation in this way:

Manager: “Hi, John. I notice that the agreements we made last week haven’t been stuck to. Would you be able to help me understand why that is?”

 John: “Err, well, been a busy week, lots on, I’ve been working hard but just haven’t got round to doing it yet.”

 Manager: “Ok, I understand, it has been a busy week, and I can see you’ve been working hard. Having said that, what do you think the ramifications are to you personally now that this hasn’t been completed?”

 John: “Err … not sure.”

 Manager: “Ok, not a problem. Take a moment to think what they could be, no hurry.”

 John: “Well, because I haven’t done this, it could mean that we miss our team target this month.”

 Manager: “Yes, ok, go on.”

 John: “Which means I won’t be looked upon favourably by the team, I feel like I’ve let them down. Which won’t feel great and I really like the guys. And I won’t get my commission, which means I won’t be able to take my wife out for that fancy meal I promised to celebrate our anniversary, which will probably cause an argument in the house. I don’t want that.”

 Manager: “Ok, I understand. It feels good to be part of a team all pulling their weight. I get that. And nobody likes an argument. I appreciate you being honest here. Everything you mentioned feels like it could be true. Also, do you remember your personal annual vision and goals for your position?”

John: “Ummm, yep. Why do you ask?”

 Manager: “Well, you committed to working hard on your follow-through muscle as you identified that it would help you in all areas of your life. At home, at work, with your commitments as a school governor – everything.”

John: “Ah, yes, I remember. I really want that, but I do find it hard.”

 Manager: “So, let’s put our heads together. What can we do from through until the rest of the week to get back on track so we can get you out on that fancy date with your wife. Any ideas?”

 John: “Well, I could work through my lunch today and tomorrow. That should get me back on track and deliver what I promised.”

 Manager: “Ah, ok, that sounds like a plan; well done for finding a solution. I’m proud of the way you worked this out. So to avoid this happening in the future, what can we do?”

 John: “Well, what I’ll do is let you know way in advance if I’m struggling with workload – if it looks like I won’t be able to deliver what we agreed.”

 Manager: “That sounds perfect! And what I promise to you is that, if you do this, I’ll provide the support you need to help get you back on track if you’re struggling. Whether it’s training, or additional resources, how does that sound?”

 John: “Perfect, thanks for helping me see this. With everything that’s going on in my life I sometimes forget what it is that I want, and how working here can help me grow as a person as part of my employment here.”

 Manager: “Not a problem, that’s what I’m here for.”

Even though this was an abbreviated piece to illustrate the point, can you see how John discovered the self-interest piece for himself, which motivated him to find a solution that was his idea? And not just one piece, but several.

Because he did this he’s owned the impact of his actions. Which is a great place to start. His manager gently reminded him of the agreements that were made and, by not following through, how they personally impacted him. Powerful stuff.

The deeper piece of management support here would be to unearth what the root cause as to why John has this habit of not following through ─ though he has a whole host of reasons as to what the benefits are to him if he improves this self-limiting habit.

Now, your turn. Time to practice.

Pick one person who is accountable to you and make a commitment to create a healthy accountability relationship with them where you help support them in holding themselves accountable so they get their most important sh** done.

Pick one person, and practice, practice, practice.

Doesn’t matter who it is. Just try and tap into what makes them tick and coach them so they get the self-interest piece.

The biggest shifts start with the smallest baby steps … by committing to practice this one area you’re on the start of a journey to mastering accountability!

Wishing you health and happiness,

*A version of this blog post previously appeared in my ebook, Mastering Accountability: Getting Sh*t Done In A Busy World