One of the topics that clients regularly bring to their coaching sessions is the client being let down by others and their lack of responsibility. "John said he would do X, but he didn't, and now I have to do it." And as much as you might want John to do X, and try as we might, neither you or I can make John do anything.
As a coach I can only help you to discover what is your next right action to take regarding your interactions with John. Sometimes my clients discover that what is right for them is to come to terms with the lack of action or responsibility in the other, and move on with their lives. Other times, clients like to explore this idea of supporting the other to reach their goals by holding them accountable to their agreed upon responsibilities.
If you've ever felt let down in your life because someone has not completed actions that they agreed to and you feel at a loss, or worse, powerless and victimised by their lack of action then this article may give you some insight on responsibility and accountability and how to move forward.
Meaning Making and Accountability
Firstly, I think it's important to be clear about what we're talking about when we refer to accountability. Some of my clients have shared with me the meaning they make around accountability and together we have discovered that - what they think accountability means - is often getting in the way of them having effective and compassionate conversations about responsibility and accountability. Here's some common and potentially unhelpful frames that you could be holding about accountability.
- Accountability only happens when me or someone else does something wrong.
- Being held accountable means being blamed for failures.
- Accountability conversations are awkward, difficult or harsh conversations.
I don't know about you, but I don't fancy being a part of one of those kinds of conversations where I've made an error, and someone takes me aside and judges me for my failures.
Throughout this article, when we discuss accountability, we are not talking about persecution, judgement or blaming others for what they have or haven't done. I am talking about the process of bringing awareness to the incongruencies between ones responsibilities and actions, to discover the factors and variables that we need to work on and deal with in order to succeed in responsibly achieving our goals. Doing so provides the individual the opportunity to grow, in light of their new awareness.
Holding someone accountable is not persecution, judgement or blaming others for what they have or haven't done. These are all exercises for the ego.
Responsibility and Accountability
Responsibility and Accountability are two sides of the same coin. To understand this further, let's look at the meaning of the two words. To understand what some words mean, all you have to do is look at the word itself.
Responsibility: respond-ability, the ability to respond to a trigger or event, therefore the ability to respond mentally, emotionally, linguistically, and behaviourally. The ability to take action in response to a stimulus.
Responsibility is a power word. It speaks about the power or ability to make a response and not lie there like a rock. As a sentient being, whatever happens— you are a responsive being in how you think and therefore feel, in what words you use to describe it or say to it, and in whatever actions you take to deal with it. The word announces that you are not a victim. If you think that you are a victim or feel like you are a victim— paradoxically, that is a choice and response you are making and actually demonstrates your power.
Accountability: account-able for your responses, your ability (power) to account for what you have thought, felt, said, and done. Accountability answers the question, “Who can give account of what’s has happened?”
Responsibility identifies the abilities in terms of the actions that a person can generate. If someone is responsible for getting the kids ready for school, for preparing dinner, or for walking the dog, that person is able to generate the needed actions and behaviours to succeed in achieving any of those activities. When the actions do not occur, or are inadequate, or inconsistent, we hold that person accountable by asking questions of that person. What happened? You said you would do X, but you did not. What prevented you from doing X?
Asking the questions is asking the person to give account for their behaviours or lack of them. It is the person responsible for getting something done or accomplished that alone is able to give account for the problem. Or, if they succeed— then give account of what they did that brought about success.
Turn the coin over to heads and you have responsibility. Flip it over to tails, and there is accountability. Two sides of the same phenomenon.
Accountability is the word we use for the conversation that explores the reasons and explanations for responding to a request, duty, obligation, goal, etc. When we ask what happened? What did you do or not do? Was the goal achieved or not? The explanations that are given are either true or false, legitimate or illegitimate, valid reasons or mere excuses. If it is an excuse, then the person is excusing himself from his responsibilities. If it is a legitimate reason— then we now have the factors and variables that we need to work on and deal with in order to succeed in responsibly achieving the goal.
As Meta-Coaches, we have conversations with our clients every day that include talking about accountability, (see Kinds of Coaching Conversations.) and it is essential that we along with our clients, co-create their responsibilities and that we hold our clients accountable for the required actions. When we do this as coaches, we are engaging in the accountability conversation. We are not blaming or accusing, we are trying to discover the legitimate factors that make or break success in reaching an outcome. You can have these kinds of conversations with people in your life too.
When we realise that there is an option to discuss accountability with others, often the next question is how do I even do that? Well as we mentioned earlier, the first thing is to remember that accountability conversations at their core are not about persecution, but rather about determining the factors or variables that got in the way of achieving the goal.
And keeping in mind that we can have accountability conversations that speak to the success of one's actions also. This means we can map out someone's steps and actions, with the aim of understanding what the variables were that enabled them to successfully complete their goal - in the hopes that we can reproduce the result for ourselves.
But whether you are having this conversation because things went well, or didn't quite go as planned, here are some things to keep in mind for your next accountability conversation.
- Get Present - We know that all communication is more effective when we are able to listen deeply and to share our own thoughts and feelings with clarity. This means being truly present in the moment with the other person. This is key to staying true to an accountability conversation, when we lose presence we can get wrapped up in our emotional reactivity and easily turn the conversation into a witch hunt, looking for someone to blame.
- Stay Present - Let go of any attachments to the outcome of the conversation - if you're entering into a conversation expecting the other person to say or agree to a particular thing, then you're setting expectations that are unlikely to be fulfilled. If you were hoping that John will admit to being lazy for not completing X, but the explanation he gives is different, will you be okay with this? If you are determined to hear a particular response then this suggests that you may be more invested in being right, than you are in seeking understanding for why the agreed responsibilities were not undertaken. It's hard to move forward from a place of I'm right and you're wrong.
- Meaning Making - If you're considering having accountability conversations in your workplace or at home, perhaps a good place to start is to first have a conversation with the team to develop a shared understanding of what it means to be held accountable. So that when it's time to have a conversation, you're both on the same page about what this means to be accountable to your responsibilities.
There are actually many other tips I could list in relation to having these conversations, such as getting in rapport, listening deeply, making sure you are in the right state to have this conversation, levelling up your questioning skills, etc etc. But ultimately it comes down to staying focused on the true meaning and intention of holding someone accountable...
It is the process of bringing awareness to the incongruencies between ones responsibilities and actions, to discover the factors and variables that we need to work on, and deal with in order to succeed in achieving our goals.
What I haven't yet spoken about is the personal responsibility to accountability. That if we are willing to have these kinds of conversations with others, then shouldn't we too be willing for others to have these conversations with us? And if a real accountability conversation means I get to be really clear about what worked, and what didn't work for me as I moved towards my goal, then this awareness will assist me in getting closer to my goal next time? If you are a leader or manager and you find yourself holding your team accountable, then (if you're not already doing so) I'd invite you to seek similar conversations from your peers - or better yet, hire a coach.Although there are learned skills in having these kinds of conversations, you don't need to be a coach to invite someone into an accountability conversation and we help executives and leaders have these kinds of conversations every day. If you're curious to learn more about how to get some of these skills on board, reach out to us for a one-on-one sessions to discuss your goals.
This article was co-authored with Dr. Michael L. Hall, Meta-Coach Co-Founder.
Dr. Hall’s doctorate is in Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology is from Union Institute University, Cincinnati Ohio. His dissertation explored the languaging of four psychotherapies (NLP, RET, Reality Therapy, Logotherapy) using the formulations of General Semantics.
As a prolific writer, Dr. Hall has written 58 books, another 30 serial books, over 100 published articles, and is recognized as a leading NLP Trainer and Developer. Most notable of the models is the Meta-States Model, also The Matrix Model, Axes of Change, etc. Michael co-founded, with Dr. Bob Bodenhamer, Neuro-Semantics® in 1996 as a field which focuses on meaning and performance.