8 MIN READ

Developing Personal Accountability

Taking Responsibility to Get Ahead

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 dispatch 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.

Honesty is the foundation of personal accountability.

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.

The Benefits of Personal Accountability

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

First, you’ll likely 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 one another. 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 stops 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 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, and show what you’ll do to make the situation right. This allows everyone involved to move on, and helps them to focus on the end goal, rather than the problem.

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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 Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle or 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.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (21)
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    Hi EP1331,

    In a team where people are held accountable, they learn to become accountable to themselves, as well as others. It becomes a way of thinking and behaving.
    It saves everybody time, trouble and energy if people learn to be accountable without being watched.
    We appreciate that you shared your thoughts - thanks!

    Yolande,
    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago EP1331 wrote
    Couldn't agree with this article more.
    To take personal responsibility makes you more invested in what you are doing and therefore makes you enjoy your role more.
    To be honest and accountable, when something does inevitably fail is emotionally liberating, helps perpetuate those behaviours in others, and allows you to focus on how to fix/make things better.
    It is really noticeable how a lack of accountability spreads throughout a team, where people are fearful of 'management' or where failure isn't seen as a learning point.
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi EP1475,

    Welcome to the club! We appreciate your feedback on the article.

    Michele
    Mind Tools Team
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