Accountability Is Not a Four-Letter Word

Martha CarlsonBy Martha Carlson

accountabilityOne of the topics at a recent onboarding session for some of our CEO advisors was the types of problems CEOs face and how we work with them to solve them. As we were talking, I was reminded that a significant aspect of a CEO advisory engagement (or any executive coaching engagement) is accountability.

According to BusinessDictionary.com, accountability is “the obligation of an individual or organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner.”

Did you notice that accountability is not a four-letter word? Why, then, is accountability so challenging that people are willing to pay others to assist them with it? There are some clues in the realm of cognitive dissonance.

In their book, “Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me,” authors Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson describe the relationship between cognitive dissonance and accountability: “When we make mistakes, we must calm the cognitive dissonance (inner disharmony between our ideal self and actual self) that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right—a belief that is dumb, immoral, and wrong.”

In other words, even though as human beings we are essentially imperfect, when faced with the reality of being wrong or having screwed up or sometimes even just anticipating possible failure, we have a lot of tricks in our bag to avoid taking ownership. This leads to suboptimization, sandbagging and other things that dampen our personal and organizational potential for success and growth. It also leads to disharmony within teams and strained relationships among peers, superiors and subordinates.

Other times, accountability is thwarted by concerns of inadequate support or resources available to achieve the goal. This calls up images of Sisyphus being forever doomed to push a huge boulder uphill by himself, only to have it repeatedly roll down on top of him.

So what can you do to improve accountability, whether for your team, your organization or yourself?

  1. Set a clear, specific goal with measurable results. For example, if you want to ensure meetings you facilitate begin on time, set a goal to prepare an agenda in advance and be in the room and ready to go a few minutes before the starting time for a specific number of consecutive meetings over a specific period of time.
  2. Share your goal with others. Psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, author of “Better Than Perfect: 7 Steps to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love,” suggests that being accountable to another person is a huge factor in motivating us to cross items off our to-do lists.
  3. Develop an action plan to achieve your goal. List what you will do and when it must be done.
  4. Identify the resources and support you need to implement your action plan. More people pushing that boulder will get it up and over the hill.
  5. Monitor progress at regular intervals, correcting course as needed.
  6. Celebrate and share your success publicly when you achieve your goal. Studies show that sharing positive experiences leads to increased satisfaction in work and life, heightened well-being and even more energy.