Three Steps to Develop Personal Accountability

Lack of accountability is everywhere.  It’s a contagious virus that infects minds and paralyzes progress.  Any time you experience poor results, look closely at the sequence of events leading up to the poor results and you will almost always find that many of the people involved (including yourself) failed to take sufficient ownership of the problems and their solutions.

Here is a humorous story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody that illustrates how the epidemic of low accountability kills progress and destroys organizations.

There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it. Everybody was sure Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

The Difference Between Responsibility and Accountability

Responsibility is taking ownership of activities.  A person who completes the tasks listed on their job description is responsible.

Accountability is taking ownership of results.  A person who clearly understands what needs to be accomplished and does what it takes to get the right results is accountable.

The distinction between responsibility and accountability was made clear to me when I worked with a Payroll Supervisor named Diane.  Diane was one of the most responsible people in the company.  She documented every instruction she was given to make sure she executed those instructions to the letter.  But when something went wrong—when we didn’t get the results we wanted—Diane was the first to say “I just did what I was told.”  In other words, she “only” did what she was told to do. Diane wasn’t as concerned about the outcome as she was concerned about staying out of trouble.  She was responsible, but not accountable.

Responsibility is taking ownership of activities.  Accountability is taking ownership of results.

Blame Gives Away Your Power

Weak individuals allow fate to determine their outcomes.  They blame their problems on circumstances and other people, effectively handing the power to overcome their problems to the circumstances and to the people they blame.  Their thinking is essentially, “If this circumstance or person doesn’t change on their own, then I’m stuck in this situation forever.  I’m a helpless victim.”

When you blame your problems on circumstances or people, you give the power to overcome your problems to those you blame.

For example, in 2017, after possibly the largest personal data breech in history, former Equifax CEO Richard Smith blamed a single IT employee who should have applied a patch to fix a vulnerability in their system, but didn’t. Smith was basically saying “What can I do if someone doesn’t do their job?”  Actually, there is a lot he could have done.

Equifax received more than 57,000 complaints from consumers between 2012 to 2017 about the accuracy of consumer’s personal data that the company maintained, making Equifax the worst offender among its competitors.  Clearly, for years Smith knew Equifax had a data management problem. Armed with this knowledge, here are a few questions Smith should have asked:

  1. Has the senior management team made data management and security a high enough priority?” The CEO and senior management team are the catalysis and custodians of organizational culture.  If the CEO and senior management team don’t take data management and security seriously, nobody else will either.
  2. What processes do we have in place to make sure employees don’t drop any balls?” For example, did everyone in the company use task tracking software?  Were managers held accountable for regularly reviewing employee’s work progress?  Were there consequences for repeated poor performance?
  3. What quality control processes are in place and are they working?”  For example, were employees free to point out problems without fear of retribution or being labelled a “trouble maker”?   Did senior managers know if their quality control systems were working? (Equifax’s quality control system didn’t work.)  Did departments and business units regularly conduct post-mortem debriefs to continually improve organizational performance?

These are all factors that were within Smith’s control.  Equifax had an accountability problem, and it started at the top.

The moment Smith blamed an employee for the data breach, he disqualified himself as a leader. Leaders take outcomes out of the hands of fate by leveraging everything within their control to get the right results.

Accountability Precedes Greatness

Greatness, in individuals and in organizations, can only be built upon a foundation of accountability.

Leaders take outcomes out of the hands of fate by leverage everything within their control to get the right results.

In 2008, when it was confirmed that 23 people died after eating meat from Canada’s largest meat company, Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain took personal accountability for the tragedy stating “the buck stops here.”  McCain went on to say “Going through the crisis, there are two advisers I’ve paid no attention to. The first are the lawyers, and the second are the accountants. It’s not about money or legal liability—this is about our being accountable for providing consumers with safe food.”  Maple Leaf acted quickly and decisively to reduce the impact of the contaminated food and took several measures to make sure it didn’t happen again.

Of course, accountability isn’t only needed when things go wrong.  People who take ownership of results help make sure things go right.  Captain David Marquet, commander of the USS Santa Fe nuclear submarine, wanted to empower his people as far as he possibly could.  So Captain Marquet implemented what Stephen Covey called in his book The 8thHabit the “I intend to” principle.  When any officer or sailor encounters a situation that requires a decision beyond their authority, they decide what to do before bringing their plan to the Captain.  “Throughout the day people would come up to the captain and say ‘I intend to do this,’ or ‘I intend to do that.’” recalled Covey.  “The captain would often ask questions and then say ‘Very well.’”

Covey went on to observe that “’I intend to’ is different in kind than ‘I recommend.’  The person has done more analytical work, to the point that he is totally prepared to carry out the action once it is approved.  She has owned not only the problem but the solution as well.”  The USS Santa Fe subsequently received the Arleigh Burke Trophy for most improved submarine, ship, or aviation squadron in the Pacific.

Three Steps of Developing Personal Accountability

Greatness in all its forms is built upon a foundation of accountability.  Fortunately, developing personal accountability (and consequently, becoming more powerful) is fairly straightforward.  There are three simple (but not easy) steps to developing personal accountability.

Step 1

  Don’t Blame

Blame kills accountability

Leaders either perpetuate a cycle of blame or provide an example of accountability that others will want to emulate.

Low accountability is contagious because blame spawns blame.  When things go wrong, most people feel the need to defend themselves and deflect blame elsewhere—either to unfavorable circumstances or to other people. And what is the natural reaction when someone feels blamed?  Answer: become defensive and blame someone or something else.  Nobody will dare step up to take accountability for poor results when they know their leader will throw them under the bus. And so the cycle of blame continues.

Leaders short circuit the blame game in their organization when they stop pointing fingers and instead go to step 2.

Step 2

  Look In The Mirror

Acknowledge your part in the problem

The ability to create a better future requires the capacity to acknowledge how you have contributed to your present circumstances.  Acknowledging how you have contributed to your problems takes power away from the things you may be tempted to blame and arms you with the power to overcome your problems.

When we acknowledge how we have contributed to our problems, we are like a detective looking for clues to determine all the factors that led to our present situation. Regularly requesting feedback is like interviewing witnesses.  A solid case is rarely based on only one or two testimonies.  No one witness has a 100% reliable perspective. But the common themes in the testimonies of many witnesses provides compelling evidence of the truth.

Regularly requesting feedback and accepting it with gratitude is critical to developing personal accountability.  Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to improving your present situation. Feedback can’t hurt you, it can only help you, so treat it like the gift it is when you receive it.

Step 3

  Engineer The Solution

Fix the process, not other people

People who request feedback and acknowledge their part in problems are already halfway to the solution. If you are part of the system in which a problem was discovered, your actions likely contributed to the problem.

Once people know how they contributed to their current situation, the two highest impact things they can change to get better results are:

  1. Themselves
  2. The system

Poor leaders believe that most problems are the result of lazy or stupid people, so they naturally go to work trying to “fix” people through training or manipulations such as threats and punishments.  There are two problems with this approach:

  1. Other people are rarely the primary cause of problems. Leaders actions and changeable external factors (the system or process) are usually far more important contributing factors to outcomes.
  2. People don’t respond well to being “fixed.”

Weak leaders ask ‘Who is to blame?’  Strong leaders ask ‘Where did the system break down?’

Leaders Create Accountability

Developing personal accountability is within everyone’s ability and control.  However, as noted above, nobody, except those with a career death wish, will dare to take accountability for poor results when they believe their manager will punish them for it.

Those in leadership positions are the primary driver of accountability in their organization.  People watch those in leadership positions far more closely than those in leadership positions think.  People look to those in authority for cues on how to behave. Managers who wish their people would take more accountability should first model accountability by consistently following the three steps of personal accountability themselves.


For more information on this topic, check out our Creating Accountability Workshop Series.


10 Responses

  1. Michael
    I really love reading your articles, about responsibility and accountability, we see it all the time, One of the questions I had recently, is why are the managers failing. what tools can be shared or imparted to make them competent leaders, This article is perfect example where there is pride in responsibility but that is not enough, an eyesight for accountability and end results are characteristics for great leader. The question I have is how do we assess if accountability is an ability they possess or only responsibility. Of course it goes without saying we do need responsibility which helps measure employee engagement.

    1. Hi Hema,

      So glad you enjoyed the article. I am constantly astounded at how powerful the principle of accountability is and how accountability (or lack thereof) permeates every facet of our lives.

      To answer your question, one of the greatest indicators of accountability is how well people respond to feedback. I recently told my home builder that many of my neighbours complained how long it took his company to deal with deficiencies. His response was “Well, you can’t please everyone.” Clearly, his only objective was to do the minimum to get ‘good enough’ results. If he were truly an accountable person, he would have been deeply grateful for this feedback so he could do something about it to become a truly outstanding home builder.

  2. Wow Michael
    Without a doubt one of the most relevant articles and topics affecting businesses today!
    I look forward to applying this approach and sharing it with my colleagues.
    Climbing must be inspiring

    1. Thanks so much Kim! Really glad you enjoyed the article! And thank you for sharing it. I’d love everyone to become more familiar with the principles of accountability.

  3. Michael, this article contains the best description of the difference between responsibility and accountability I believe I’ve ever seen. It also illuminates the biggest and most pervasive obstacle to accountability — blame! You have such a talent for making these key leadership concepts accessible. relevant, and empowering. Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much Dianne for your comments! Seriously, it really means a lot to me to hear that my research and ideas are helpful.

      Well, I love writing about how to become a better leader so stay tuned for lots more to come on how to create accountability in the workplace!

  4. This article was sure insightful which leaves me with food for thought on the concept of accountability against responsibility. Both of them are two sides of the same coin, responsibility influences us to deliver our goals and accountability encourages us to step up.
    However, when I reflect further accountability could possibly backfire should the work environment be toxic or the senior leaders do not practise accountability themselves. How can one defend and thrive in such an environment, especially if the team managed by the individual is closely knit, organizational values, mission and vision align with the individual how can this individual breakthrough?
    Certainly, accountability will not facilitate here. Just a thought…

    1. Hi Paulina – so glad you enjoyed the article. You’re right… I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s much harder for employees to demonstrate accountability when their leaders are not setting a good example or if they are not creating the right conditions for people to take accountability. This is precisely why I focus my attention on training senior management teams how to create accountability within their organizations, and my training begins with teaching them how to demonstrate personal accountability. This is why I do what I do. Accountability starts at the top.

  5. Michael, this article has been of great value to me while building on a concept of Entrepreneurship within the organizations. Greatness begins with accountability, is such an inspiring statement for anyone to want to learn and implement the steps towards personal accountability. Thank you.

    1. Thanks Vaishali, glad you enjoyed the article! Yes, ‘greatness begins with accountability’ is a simple yet profound idea, and one we’d all love to see implemented more frequently by our leaders.

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