Developing Personal Accountability

Taking Responsibility to Get Ahead

Finger pointing

When you’re personally accountable, you take ownership of situations and see them through.

© iStockphoto/Palto

Martha is frustrated. She's trying to solve a problem with a stationery order, but the customer service agent she’s talking to isn’t helping.

"It was the despatch team’s fault. I can’t do anything about that," he says. Martha asks to be put through to another agent. He handles the situation very differently.

"I’m sorry to hear about this problem," he says. "I'll find out what's happened and send the order by express delivery. It will be with you tomorrow."

Martha feels less stressed straight away. The first agent shirked his responsibilities, but the second made himself personally accountable for fixing the problem. He took ownership of the situation, apologized, and found a solution.

In this article, we’ll look at what personal accountability means. We'll also explore how you make it one of your core values.

What is Personal Accountability?

Management consultant Todd Herman defined personal accountability as "being willing to answer … for the outcomes resulting from your choices, behaviors, and actions."

When you’re personally accountable, you take ownership of situations that you’re involved in. You see them through, and you take responsibility for what happens – good or bad. You don’t blame others if things go wrong. Instead, you do your best to make things right.

In the workplace, accountability can go beyond your own tasks. For example, you may be held accountable for the actions of your team.

Tip:

If you’ve recently become a senior leader in your organization, read our article on how to take responsibility   in a new role.

How Personal Accountability Helps

Sometimes it can be tough to take personal accountability. However, you'll find that it offers many advantages.

First, you’re likely to have healthier relationships with your friends, family, and colleagues. A 2005 study found that children who were encouraged to take personal responsibility for their actions also had more positive social interactions.

Accountability also builds trust   within teams and organizations, because people know that they can depend on each other. Leaders who are accountable are more likely to be trusted and respected, because people know that they will keep their word.

Personal accountability can save time and money, too. People who take responsibility for their actions speak up, and they look for solutions when there's a problem. This not only prevents the situation getting worse, but it stop costs and delays from escalating.

Last, personal accountability can boost your chances of promotion. When you show senior colleagues that you’re dependable, you mark yourself out as someone with leadership potential.

How to Be More Accountable

Personal accountability isn’t a trait that people are born with, it’s a way of living that you can learn. Use the strategies below to become more accountable.

Know Your Role

It’s hard to be personally accountable if you're not clear what you’re responsible for.

If this is the case for you, ask your boss to provide a job description   that sets out your tasks clearly. If responsibilities are unclear within the team, ask your manager to outline who is responsible for different team tasks, and to share this information with everyone involved.

Be Honest

Success in life only comes when you’re completely honest with yourself, and with others. This means setting aside your pride, and admitting when you’ve made a mistake.

So, tune into your "gut feelings" when things are difficult, and learn to ask for help   if you’re struggling, so that you don’t let others down.

Tip:

Honesty is always the best policy, but don’t use it to blame others, or to make excuses. Instead, focus on your own role in a situation, and think about how you can resolve the problem.

Say Sorry

Accountability doesn’t stop with honesty. If something has gone wrong and you were responsible, then you need to apologize  .

Focus on making amends   when you apologize – show what you’ll do to make the situation right. This allows everyone involved to move on, and helps them focus on the end goal, rather than the problem.

Note:

Be aware of the legal implications of saying sorry: in some countries and states, this can be taken as an admission of liability.

Take advice from your boss or a legal professional if you need to apologize on behalf of your organization.

Use Time Wisely

Procrastination is a common way to avoid responsibility, as it delays dealing with a problem, meaning that someone else may solve it instead. Your colleagues may feel that they can’t rely on you, and this will affect your professional reputation.

You can overcome procrastination   by identifying why you do it. Is the task dull? Do you lack information or resources? Or is there some other cause? Once you understand why you put things off, you can take steps to fix the problem.

Next, practice good time management, so that you make time for what’s important. Use tools such as Action Programs   to manage your time more efficiently.

Don't Overcommit

When you take on too much, something will eventually fall through the cracks. That means that you've let someone down.

So, before you agree to a new task, think carefully about your schedule and whether you'll be able to fulfill the task to the best of your ability.

If you're not sure that you can complete it, say "yes" to the person and "no" to the task   so that you maintain a strong relationship and a good reputation.

Make Changes

Accountability can open up powerful learning opportunities. When something hasn’t gone to plan, ask for feedback  , and look for ways to do things differently in the future.

Reflect on your actions, too: spend some time at the end of each day running through these simple questions:

  • What could I have done differently today?
  • How can I build this change into my job from now on?

In time, you’ll build new skills and better ways to deal with difficult situations.

Tip:

In some failing organizations, managers who avoid being accountable can get ahead, while those who take responsibility may be ejected if some small thing goes wrong.

If your organization has this type of culture, then it may be time to behave accountably, and find a new role in a better organization.

Key Points

When you’re personally accountable, you take ownership of what happens as a result of your choices and actions. You don’t blame others or make excuses, and you do what you can to make amends when things go wrong.

To become more accountable, make sure that you're clear about your roles and responsibilities. Be honest with yourself and others, so you can admit when you’re wrong, apologize, and move on.

Make the most of your time, and manage it carefully so that you don't take on too much.

Last, think carefully about situations where you didn’t take responsibility but should have. These mistakes and failures can be valuable teaching tools, if you have the courage to learn from them.

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Comments (3)
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi lhayes

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts - you make some excellent points.

    I agree that team accountability is very important and that you sometimes have to do 'not my job' tasks for the good of the team.

    I particularly liked the idea of not just fixing something, but fixing it for good. That means not just looking at and doing the obvious, but going beyond that and looking for new and better ways of doing things. Don't we just love to be around people who seem as if they can 'make problems go away'? Of course it isn't that easy - it takes effort. But it also takes some thinking before the effort.

    Thanks again for emphasizing these insights. BTW, we'd love to 'see' you on the forums more often so that we can hear more of your thoughts and ideas.

    Kind regards
    Yolandé
  • lhayes wrote Over a month ago
    This article can be elaborated and applied to team accountability as well. It is the same principles - understand what the TEAM is responsible for and take actions to demonstrate your accountability towards that success. Don't just play in your own sandbox taking accountability for things in your defined task list, but also look for opportunities to help others be accountable. Sometimes that means swallowing your pride and doing something "not your job" or it can mean literally stepping into someone else's task area. If this is uncomfortable, simply asking the person if they would like you to follow up on the issue on thier behalf is often enough to open the door for more personal responbilility. Keeping them informed or even getting the solution to a place where you can hand it back to them demonstrates that you care about the outcome of the team more than your personal success - a sign of a true leader.

    Addtionally, many issues that need leadership are actually in a grey area. It isn't clear who should own the outcome. It is a fact of life that we cannot predict every scenario and build a job description to cover it. If this is happening, be the person to take on the challenge. But don't just stop at fixing the issue that one time - look for an opportunity to fix it for good. This is what can really be a difference maker in an organisation and is something that clearly demonstrates you are someone who should be considered for opportunities to grow.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    There is no substitute for being accountable. Sometimes people are caught up in justifying certain things, rather than taking responsibility for it, learning from it and moving on.

    I think it's difficult to be truly accountable if you haven't yet learned to be completely honest with yourself about yourself. And if you're not building your life & career on honesty, the foundation won't be strong enough to last.

    Yolandé

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