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Accountability = integrity + learning

Accountability is tightly aligned with integrity. Integrity is the act of doing what you say you will do — sticking to your word. This may be because you are following your own principles, or it may be simply that you are saying what you plan to do and then doing it.

In the case of business, we talk about “holding people accountable.” But what does that really mean? If you scour the internet for how to hold someone accountable, the only concrete examples you will find are from the military — classic — and involve removing people from their posts. Translated to business, this means firing people if they don’t perform. This translates into “performance management.” Do you fire someone if they didn’t finish a project? Do you fire someone if they didn’t report status? What if they reported status but couldn’t get a project back on track? In business, you would want to help this person get better at their job so they will finish a project, could report status, could get a project on track. Rarely is someone’s life on the line, and having hired a person, it is often worth the time to help them improve rather than trying to find a new person to replace them. Now if you have tried, and they tried, and it still isn’t working, ok… fire them. Have you then “held them accountable?” I guess so.

But really, a person has to hold themself accountable. They must say what they plan to do, carry through on that, ask for help if they are behind schedule. That is all accountability is. And that is really no different than having integrity.

Now, if you are in a context where accountability is important (ie, getting shit done), then what you really need to be doing is what looks to me like nagging. Just keep asking, week after week or day after day, “What progress have you made?” or “Do you need help?” I was reminded though that this does not have to feel like nagging. When can that be? When the person being “held accountable” asks for the help. Then the regular checkins become helpful nudges to keep them on the path they want to be on.

What’s the takeaway?

  • Actions speak louder than words
  • Accountability means following through on your word
  • Only you can hold yourself accountable

As a leader, you want to “hold people accountable” by helping them do better at their jobs. As an individual, you want to hold yourself accountable by sticking to your work and working to get better.