Own it: Take Personal Accountability to Work

With so many demands on our time, it’s easy to set a goal — whether it be to improve at a work-related skill, eat healthier, or devote more time to family — and not live up to our expectations. We’ve also all watched ourselves want to get from Point A to Point B, but not take the actions necessary to get there.

Both can be frustrating. Part of the solution is to learn how to be more accountable to ourselves — to honestly assess a situation and take responsibility for our outcomes. When we’re accountable to ourselves, we’re better able to take responsibility for ourselves at work too.

Defining accountability

According to University of Mississippi Medical Center Professor Emeritus Marcia Rachel — who’s written about accountability in the medical field — there are different definitions of accountability. All of them involve five key ideas:

  • Obligation, or a responsibility to accomplish something
  • Willingness, or taking action because we want to rather than because we have to
  • Intent, or the reason behind acting
  • Ownership, or taking responsibility for our behavior and outcomes
  • Commitment, or dedicating ourselves to the task or goal at hand.

Becoming more accountable to ourselves and in the workplace breeds success – both for us and for our teams. Dr. Rachel explains, “[Accountability] is an energizing force throughout an organization. Where a culture of accountability exists, people do what they say they’ll do.” In other words, people choose to take responsibility for projects and outcomes, with the intention of reaching objectives.

In order to take responsibility for ourselves in a work setting, we must first be able to be honest with and accountable to ourselves. For example, in a company that has a culture of accountability, managers might share honestly in a meeting about how they made a strategic miscalculation during a project. Rather than blaming the market or upper management, they’d explain their thought process, why it didn’t work, and what they’re doing to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Without being able to honestly assess the given situation ourselves, we can’t possibly improve it appropriately at work.

“In contrast,” she continues, “an organization lacking accountability is full of excuses for not meeting objectives. Staff sense that ‘close to the target’ is good enough as no one will notice the difference.” Without accountability, employees might not trust their bosses or each other and work to get by rather than fulfill the organization’s core mission.  

Accountability facilitates achievement

Being accountable isn’t just a matter of integrity. It’s also a success principle. It might sound obvious, but without owning our choices, it’s hard to make professional progress. In a review of dozens of studies on organizational management and research on workplace accountability, psychology researcher Arti Trivedi found that being more accountable allows us to be more accurate in our work, make better decisions, and feel more satisfied. All of those factors make us better workers, and presumably, help us be more successful.

The four-step accountability plan

To be more accountable, we need to have practical habits to take action on. Sometimes, we don’t hold ourselves accountable because we don’t know how.

These strategies will help you make the rubber meet the road.

  1. Set concrete, detailed goals. Rather than deciding to “improve your performance at work,” set the goal to, for example, “take three continuing education courses by the end of the year.” By being specific, you’ll more easily be able to quantify if and when you’ve reached your goal. Clear goals beget clear results.
  2. Identify the behaviors it’ll take to reach your goals, and decide how often you’ll stick to them. For example, if your goal is to participate more in the community at work, you might decide to eat lunch with a new person every two weeks, stay off your phone when riding in the elevator, and attend at least the first half of any work event. By identifying the habits that’ll get you to your goals, the task becomes more digestible and it’s easier to assess if you’re moving forward or not.
  3. Schedule assessment dates. Along the path to your goal, make periodic assessments. Depending on the time period you’ve set out, this might be a quarter-way, half-way, and three-quarter way check-in. During your check-in, ask whether you’ve been consistently taking action. Look at any habits that need to be added in order to reach your goal. Make sure you’re assessing yourself with enough time to course correct and reach your goal in the time limit you set.
  4. Remember to think through the consequences of not being accountable to yourself. What will it cost you in money and life experiences, and in your relationship with yourself to not reach your goal? Sometimes when change feels hard, we have to remember that the cost of doing nothing may be higher in the long run.

Pro Tip: Here’s a goal-setting template you can use in Evernote.

A plan gives you a concrete structure to hold yourself to. Without planning, it’s less likely that you’ll be successful achieving your goal…which is, again, a matter of personal accountability.

The layers of accountability

Once you have your goal and a strategic plan to achieve it, consider adding in what productivity experts Carey and Demir Bentley call the “four layers of accountability”: a coach, team, and an accountability buddy, and public accountability. Each “layer” is an external force – whether it’s a boss, friend, or community – that helps hold you to your strategic plan.

A coach is a mentor, boss, or expert who holds you to a higher standard than you may be accustomed to holding for yourself. Tell your coach about your goal and plan, and ask them to check in with you along the way.

Creating a team provides accountability because working with others requires you to deliver on your promises. If you work in a corporate setting, work with a team member more closely than usual to finish a challenging project.

You could also pair up with an accountability buddy, and have regular check-ins to assess progress and challenges. Team up with someone who you trust to give constructive, honest feedback.

Last, consider publicly announcing your goal so that if you don’t reach it, there’s a social consequence. You can post your goal in a business-minded social media group or forum, or in an email to your friends and family. Announcing your goal to others puts you on the hook to execute. However, accountability still comes down to you doing what you promise to do. Don’t blame any of these “layers” if you don’t follow through.

Being accountable is a craft that takes practice. Develop your goal-setting and execution skills, and know that they’ll strengthen with time.

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