What is personal accountability?
There are numerous definitions for the concept of personal accountability, but in the most general terms, displaying it means you are someone who consciously takes ownership of your life and responsibility for your decisions and actions. Personal accountability is sometimes thought to be comprised of five habits:
Some frame it as a “before the fact” mindset of personal ownership and commitment to a result.
It’s easy to see one reason why discussions of personal accountability are relevant right now: COVID and vaccinations. Almost the entire debate around vaccinations has ultimately come back to ideas around personal accountability and collective good, i.e. “OK, you don’t want the vaccine for ideological reasons, and I understand that, but can you think of your personal accountability to society beyond just you?” Since we’re not fully vaccinated as a society yet (nor is any individual country), obviously these approaches don’t work that well -- and that’s in part because people often conflate personal accountability with individualism, and those are actually different concepts.
Personal accountability is about owning your actions, decisions, and behaviors, and ideally building trust with others, fostering stronger relationships, and decreasing stress along the way. It’s about your personal development and your ability to confront issues head-on.
Individualism is more about your individual decisions, and within mandate discussions, yes, there is an aspect of individualism at play. Some younger women may be concerned about vaccines and pregnancy; some may have had bad experiences with vaccinations in their family, and don’t want to get one. Those are individualistic decisions. But there’s a personal accountability piece to them as well -- because if you choose to opt out, and others confront you about it, you need to be able to stand your ground, own your decision, and explain it back.
Simplest terms: without it, no one would have to own any of their decisions, and personal + professional life would become wholly circular, without repercussions or clear goals. People having personal accountability, especially those in formal leadership roles, is the entire reason that organizations can work together, and the underpinning of hierarchy too: when something goes wrong, someone needs to be on the hook for that, and take responsibility.
There are also personal benefits to developing more personal accountability, including:
It’s worth spending one second here on personal accountability vs. personal responsibility, as those two terms often also get conflated. Here’s the essential difference:
Most people have been responsible for the welfare of either themselves or another being at some point in their early lives. Young children are often responsible for pets or siblings.
Accountability is a word that carries a lot more weight, and is one that we don’t really hear until we enter the world of work and business. It can have positive and negative connotations, but research suggests that being held accountable for things can have positive effects on enhancing the feeling of self-control in the workplace.
Let’s say your team works for a few weeks on a new pitch to an external partner. Some team members have a few late nights putting all the elements together. You’ve been working hard, and you’re charged with delivery of one aspect of the presentation on a Wednesday.
That Tuesday night, an old friend calls and is in town. You go out, and one drink + appetizers becomes more, and you get home late, sleep poorly, and are sluggish for your part of the presentation. The external partner is disengaged, and your teammates range from upset to downright furious.
If you practice personal accountability, you will pull your team together and say “Listen, I screwed up here. I prioritized this time with an old friend too long, and it hurt my part of the presentation. I’m sorry. I can reach out to the potential partner and explain the context, or do whatever else is necessary, but that part is on me.”
If you don’t practice personal accountability, you’d likely say “It will be fine, whatever!” or “The point of life is friends and relationships, not pitches at work!”
One approach helps you build trust and respect on a team. The other one moves you closer to a new job.
Define clear roles on work projects: If you work closely with others on a team, ensure that everyone’s tasks and responsibilities are clearly defined and that everyone understands what they must deliver as well as the deadlines. Make sure that the team as a whole has ownership of the project as a whole so that problems and breakdowns can be surfaced early and problem-solved together. This is not common at work -- a priority vacuum and role confusion often exists -- but it can be done better.
Be honest: “Transparency” often feels like a buzzword in work contexts, but if you’re honest with co-workers (see example above), it goes a long way towards personal accountability.
Don’t be afraid to apologize: There are concerns in modernity about over-apologizing, or performative apologizing, under the guise of “cancel culture.” On work teams, or in personal relationships, put all that aside. If you need to apologize for something, do it. That’s the heart of personal accountability and trust.
“Be the change…” Ask for feedback on how you could have done things differently. Be open to constructive criticism and then apply what you’ve learned.
Know your avenues of accountability: Maybe it’s your spouse or significant other. Maybe it’s your boss and teammates. Maybe it’s another team at work. Maybe it’s your parents; maybe it’s the guy at the bar next to you crying about a breakup. Understand who you’re accountable to and you can practice it more directly.
Accountable people don’t view mistakes as failures. Rather, they view them as teachable moments that will help make them better and more successful in the future.
One of the concepts you hear in this space a lot is “continuous learning,” which is also a major aspect in development of personal power and social capital. (It’s also very helpful in after-action reviews.) Being a continuous learner is a noble goal, although some people get overwhelmed by day-to-day tasks and responsibilities and don’t have the time for that. Even if you can’t specifically embrace the concept, realize that a mistake, or a failure, is not the end of the road. Many people fail, constantly, and end up with some notion of great success. Dyson made 5,127 prototypes of his vacuum, as one famous example.
There’s an important aspect to this discussion around managerial responsibility. Many managers confuse “accountability” with “scaring someone,” which is bad management. No one needs to be scared, especially at work. Instead, consider other approaches:
Decide on the outcome you want. In this case it’s fairly straightforward: improved performance. Still, be specific. What does this particular person need in order to turn around this particular poor performance or failure? Maybe it’s help defining a stronger strategy, or brainstorming different tactics, or identifying what went right. Maybe they need to know you trust them and you’re on their side.
But here’s what people almost never need: to feel scared or punished. And more often than not, that’s how we make them feel when we “hold them accountable” in anger.
Bottom line: if you’re a manager, you hold personal accountability over other people, and that means you need to interact with them, instruct them, and provide them feedback in ways that will drive the best outcomes relative to how they like to work. That’s a major shift from simply managing your own personal accountability.
Just based off the last section, you can start by reading our guide on how to successfully hold people accountable at work.
Beyond that: we have options for personal coaching (including AI-driven), talent development, resolving conflict, and communicating better at work. All these programs will touch on some degree of personal accountability and the development of increased personal and professional responsibility, so we encourage you to give them a try!
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