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The Accountability Myth

"Accountability" is a buzz word that is being thrown around an awful lot these days. By heads of state, regulators, advocacy groups, bosses, CEOs, and media pundits. They all seem to use the word "accountability" as though they (and the rest of us) actually know what it means.

These opinion-molders tell us about how the government needs to be held accountable to its citizens, how too-big-to-fail banks need to be held accountable for the financial meltdown, how educators need to be held accountable for how their students perform on standardized tests, and so forth. All talk, no action. All because people feel reassured when the "A" word is used regardless of whether true accountability actually occurs.

Hopefully you’re now asking what accountability really is. Webster’s dictionary doesn’t help much. It defines accountability as "an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions." But what does "accepting responsibility" or "accounting for one’s actions" actually mean? Have I accepted responsibility simply because I say the words "I accept responsibility for this?" By what accounting method do I "account for my actions?"

Given how politically correct this word is and how vague its definition is, "accountability" is a perfect word for lots of people to misuse!

The Truth About Accountability

The heart of accountability is the law of cause-and-effect. I make a choice. I take an action. It produces results. Commitment, behavior, impact.

Here’s a simple example of what real accountability looks like:

  1. I’m an independent contractor. I bid on a project. I get hired. I commit to completing the project by a specific date.
  2. I make the choices that are necessary to complete the project with excellence by that date (or I choose to make other things more important than completing the project by that date).
  3. I get paid, I get re-hired for more projects and I get a glowing recommendation that gets me more contracts from others (or I don’t get paid plus I don’t get hired for future projects plus I don’t get a glowing recommendation I can use in seeking contracts from others).

Now let’s look at what fake accountability looks like using this example:

  1. I bid on the project. I get hired. I commit to completing the project by a specific date, doing my best to remain as vague as I can possibly get away with.
  2. I choose to make other things more important than completing the project by that date. OR I make it appear as though I have completed the project while hoping you won’t discover the corners I cut or harm I’ve created in completing it.
  3. I make excuses and justifications for not having completed the project (or for having cut corners or created harm should you catch me having done that), along with saying the words, "I’m am accountable." In other words, I use the "A" word (along with excuses, justifications, poor me stories, etc.) to try to manipulate you into treating me as though the law of cause and effect doesn’t apply to me. (This is the essence of entitlement, by the way.)

Are you getting the picture? Since true accountability is about the law of cause-and-effect, the heart of real accountability is "natural consequences:" logical effects that grow from my actions and inactions. There are only two basic alternatives to natural consequences: indulgence or revenge.

  • Indulgence means letting me off the hook — rescuing me from experiencing the natural consequences of my choices. This teaches me that I’m above the law; that the law of cause-and-effect doesn’t apply to me. In other words, entitlement. This teaches me that it’s okay to try to get away with as much as I can without fear of what will happen if I’m caught, or to become so lazy and uninspired to strive for excellence that I lose my motivation, creativity, aliveness.
  • Revenge means going beyond enforcing natural consequences to also self-righteously shame or harm me in return. This teaches me that it’s a crime to learn by my mistakes even though this is one of the most potent ways all of us learn. This in turn teaches me to hate and rebel against authority, or to try to get away with as much as I can without being caught, or to become so rigid about following rules that I lose my flexibility, creativity and aliveness.

Dan Millman, in his book "Living on Purpose" writes that "Consequences teach better than concepts… prisons are full of people who understood the moral concepts but didn’t grasp the consequences."

What’s Your Relationship With Accountability?

Consider your relationship with accountability — from both sides of the accountability equation:

  • How much integrity do you have around doing what you say you’ll do? How much integrity do you have about doing whatever it takes to make things right if you don’t meet a commitment you make?
  • How much integrity do you have around allowing others to experience the natural consequences of their choices with you when they don’t fulfill a commitment they’ve made to you? Do you pay people in full before they’ve completed a project? Do you rescue people in some other way from experiencing the consequences of not completing a commitment? Do you go overboard and take revenge on them for not completing a commitment?

If you want to see more true accountability in the world, please join me in being the change you want to see. Embody accountability as a role model. Honor natural consequences regarding commitments others make to you — from spouses to children to parents to friends to co-workers to businesses you deal with to public officials you elect or who work for the government your taxes fund.

If you find yourself getting overly angry at people or organizations with accountability deficits, consider getting my Conquering Anger Mountain training manual.

If you find it difficult to enforce logical consequences, consider getting my NICE™ Boundaries training manual.

If you tend to ruthlessly punish yourself for making mistakes, instead of allowing your mistakes to become your biggest gifts, consider getting my From Inner Critic to Inner Helper training manual.

If integrity issues in general tend to be an important theme in your personal or work life — either with yourself or with those around you — consider getting my six-award-winning book about the hijacking of integrity and what to do about it, The New IQ.