Accountability Part 1: Making Stuff Work Exceptionally Well


I work with people who want performance and results — making stuff work exceptionally well: organizations, projects, strategy, bosses, team members, direct reports, personal relationships, health, play, retirement, family, balance, finances, etc. — basically, life.

Sometimes the conversations focus on big new ventures or colossal failures, but more often than not, getting stuff to work exceptionally well in life comes down to illuminating and eliminating the annoyances of subtly unworkable stuff that has built up in one’s life:

Being overwhelmed, rushed, unable to control or influence dissatisfying situations, at the mercy of particular relationships, gossip, out of control email, the land of empty promises “let’s get coffee sometime” or “I’m going to start my workouts on Monday,” cultural distrust, financial blindness, not speaking up, meetings starting or ending late, unequal expectations, speeding tickets, inconsistent gym attendance, on/off eating regimens, the illusion of “someday” as anything other than the place where great intentions go to die, etc.

Yes we live good lives, yes, we do good stuff, and yes, that really can be good enough. Good is good. However, as Jim Collins pointed out, good can also be the enemy of great, “Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.” When we pick our heads up, most of us can find ourselves living in a world where solid justifications, reasonable excuses, logical explanations, dramatic tales, circumstantial factors, and opinionated tangents replace actual results.

The worst part is, like the boiling frog metaphor[i], we have slowly tolerated higher levels of unworkability without our explicit awareness. Worse yet are those of us who are so blind to the impact of this in our lives that we inadvertently lower our standards of what is possible while maintaining that in light of the lower standard, “everything is fine.”

So what is it that we are tolerating? What is the “boiling water” in our lives?

Among others, we consistently tolerate a lack of accountability from ourselves and others for both the subtle and not so subtle aspects of our lives.

What is accountability?

Accountability is most often used to explain one’s performance, or lack thereof, directed to someone (boss, spouse, etc.) with the expectation that the explanation will sufficiently “account” for the results. Generally, accountability is only brought up if something is lacking rather than as something we utilize to ensure success. This misses the mark, leaving accountability as something to be avoided rather than explored.

The foundational problem is treating accountability solely as an activity one does or an assignment one has rather than a state of being one cultivates for producing an outcome.

Accountability is fundamentally a state of being — a willing acceptance to be the one counted on (most often to produce an outcome) — and as a consequence, the primary action of accountability is to account for one’s word.

Increasing Accountability in Your Life

Cultivate Accountability as a Way of Being

Transform “I have to do [X] activity” into “I am accountable for [Y] outcome.”

Having an accountability begins with an assignment of a task, job or duty. It is activity based and it is something “I have to do.” Sometimes things “I have to do” can devolve into obligations. When you have an accountability, you have a part of the whole — responsibilities and tasks are divided among others. You answer for your stuff and others answer for theirs.

Being accountable, on the other hand, is something “I choose to be.” It is an empowering context, a place to stand. You may or may not be formally assigned anything. It is an outcome that you see to regardless of age, experience, status, weather, mood, whose job it is, etc. It is a self-declared ownership of the whole, and that declaration gives you power to act in any circumstance. Obstacles are simply part of the path to making it happen and no stone is unturned.

Being accountable is something you do to yourself, not something that anyone can do to you. You can be given an accountability, but you have to take being accountable.

This all boils down to the difference between “I have to do [X activity]” or “I am accountable for [x outcome],” where the outcomes is the ultimate result.

Activity: I have so much work to do, I can’t fit it into my calendar
Outcome: I am accountable for the balance in my life.

Activity: I have to get these dishes done and my spouse needs to do the laundry.
Outcome: I am accountable for a peaceful, enjoyable evening in my house.

Activity: I have to get my English paper done
Outcome: I am accountable for my performance at school

You can be accountable for anything. This is not a statement of fact, it is a way of being. Counter-intuitively, when you be accountable for the outcome regardless of whether or not you were assigned a task — you get access to enormous personal power. When you turn obligations that you have to do, into outcomes you choose to be accountable for, new pathways for action start to emerge.

In effect, we are taking ourselves from being ‘at the effect’ of the unworkability in our lives and turning it on the head to being ‘at cause’ for the outcome being realized: “The shift is actually an inversion in our thinking. The step from thinking of ourselves as effect to thinking of ourselves as cause is the primary act of inversion. This is the point upon which accountability revolves.” — Peter Block

Account for Your Word

Vigilantly look for opportunities to complete what is incomplete by accounting for your word.

Doing accountability boils down to accounting for your word. Don’t do it to be a “good person,” do it because accounting for your word significantly increases the opportunity for personal, team, and organizational performance.

Accounting for your word leaves things complete — whether it be something you said you would do, something that is expected of you, or something in the way you present yourself to others.

Completion makes space for something new. When things are incomplete they build up, causing missed deadlines, feeling overwhelmed, frustration, over-commitments, lack of trust, and more. Ultimately, incompletions take up space — brain space, physical space, emotional space, calendar space, etc. When there is no space, we run the gamut between deliberate ignorance and denial to frenetically chasing down loose ends. When we complete, we make space. With space, we can create and accomplish.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you actually have to do everything that was ever on your list; rather, you have to have a way of accounting for all aspects of your word so that they are in a ‘state of completion’ for yourself and others — the important thing is they are accounted for in a way that allows space for something else.

E.g. Have you ever asked someone to do something and five days later you are wondering whether or not they did it? You might consider calling and asking, but then perhaps you don’t want to be too pushy… of course maybe they did do it but didn’t tell you. You might start an email and then decide not to — start a text, then erase. This all takes up valuable ‘space’. In contrast, if the person said “I haven’t gotten to your request yet, I’ll get it done by Friday,” while the task wasn’t complete, it can rest in a temporary state of completion (until Friday of course).

Three Steps to Account for Your Word[ii]

Accounting for your word looks like either keeping your word to begin with, or if you’re not going to keep it,

1) Let people know who are counting on you that you aren’t going to keep your word,

2) Say whether or not you will in the future and by when, and

3) Address the concerns of those who are counting on your word.

E.g. “Sarah, I want to let you know that I will not be finishing the online video promo by Wednesday. I know you have a concern about getting everyone’s input so you can complete the project by Friday. I will complete my part by noon on Thursday and I offer to stay late on Thursday to help you put everything together.”

You aren’t just saying “Sarah, I didn’t get it done on time,” but you are addressing the concern Sarah has for putting the final product together. Sometimes you have to ask what the concern is to be able to make an offer to address it.

EXPLICIT WORD: You can start this practice with the stuff you have explicitly said such as promises you have made (to include the empty “let’s do lunch sometime” throw-aways) and the values you espouse to uphold.

IMPLICIT WORD: When you have mastered the explicit stuff, move into the domain of the implicit such as spousal expectations, going the speed limit, not gossiping at work, organizational policies, the societal norms, etc. While you didn’t say “I promise,” much unworkability happens when a person’s ‘word’ is assumed and unaddressed as such. For things to work, you need to act as if you have given your word even when you haven’t. This means that you either keep it, or you explicitly acknowledge you won’t be doing it.

I know this can seem crazy, unfair and even ridiculous to allow other’s expectations be something you have to address when you didn’t say say you would do it to begin with. Unfortunately, it happens to really work in terms of increasing performance and power and leaving it unaddressed just does not. Moving the assumed into a state of completion can be as simple as acknowledging there is an expectation of you, and you won’t be doing it, “I noticed you put things on my calendar and expect me to attend — I want to let you know that it really doesn’t work for me and unless I explicitly let you know I will be there, I won’t be coming.”

Much to my husband’s dismay, I never order what is on the menu, I always ask for exceptions. This has caused much dissatisfaction when we dine out as my husband respects the chef’s options. On our 10th wedding anniversary, I let my husband know that I will never fulfill on his expectation to order exactly what is on the menu — and for the rest of our lives it will be that way. I then asked him if he would still choose me. He chose to stay with me and my disgraceful ordering, and because that implicit expectation was explicitly declined, the suffering ended and we have enjoyed dining out for the last eight years.

Making implicit expectations explicit and then dealing with them to a state of completion creates enormous space and workability.

Start Practicing

Being accountable gives you power; accounting for your word enables your performance.

For some of us, we feel the constant flux and acceleration of change around us daily. By accounting for your word, you can maintain a high level of workability for yourself and others as even when you cannot always keep your promise, you can still account for your word and thereby create a workable relationship and trust.

What I find most people confront as they learn to address broken promises with accountability, is overcoming the guilt, shame, or just bad emotion around not keeping their promise. We need to grow our capacity to account for our word without attaching all of our baggage to it (to include the idea that “good people” get it all done or even the need to get our validation from others that we are okay).

It is also true in life that we do get stuck between a rock and a hard place where we think taking accountability will cause us financial ruin, jobs, relationships, etc. Yes, this is hard and there is not a one size fits all kind of way to handle it. The only thing I have found to be consistently true is avoiding accountability in these situations will keep you up at night, cost you greatly in terms of health, dignity, well-being, performance and relationships. With communication comes new pathways for action in even the most impossible of situations.

Part 1 (of 2) has been about self-accountability. While seemingly simple ideas, I have been working on these for almost two decades and can still see new places where I have inadvertently given away my power by avoiding being accountable, or reduced my opportunity for performance by providing sincere apologies, explanations and defenses rather than simply accounting for my word. It takes practice, and practice happens in each and every moment: we are always practicing something.

Now you are ready for Part 2 as we take accountability to the world external to ourselves!



[i] The metaphor rests on a premise that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out; however, if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of threats that arise gradually.

[ii] Acknowledgment: I am influenced by Charles Feltman’s work on Trust (The Thin Book of Trust, 2009), Dr. Fernando Flores, and Erhard, Jensen and Zaffron’s work on Integrity:


Try something out in this article and let us know how it goes!