I'm Sorry, That's Not Accountability

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Saying the words “I’m sorry” does not create accountability. It’s the way most of us avoid it. It’s a nice gesture — assuming it’s sincere — but it is at best the expression of an intention: “I get that I messed up and I intend to be accountable.” In reality, it’s a throwaway line. We say it to break the tension, to get rid of the icky feeling that we made things harder for another person.

The problem is that the icky feeling is the doorway to personal growth. We don’t get to grow and look good at the same time.

If you want to up your accountability game, and create a culture of accountability around you, don’t use the moment to minimize the tension, use it to deepen it.

Think of accountability like a credit card. Imagine that each person in your life has offered you a certain amount of available credit. And that that credit goes up or down based on your “transaction history” with them.

Each time you do something that makes life harder for them you use up a bit of that credit.* We all do it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. We can only accept that we do it because at that moment we felt we needed to: It was convenient and we didn’t think it was that big of a deal. Nevertheless, you took something from that person that they don’t have an infinite supply of. Perhaps it was a bit of their time, a bit of their creative energy, or a bit of the political capital they’ve worked hard to earn in the organization.

You can go through the month blissfully ignorant of the creeping balance on your credit card. And you can do the same thing with the goodwill (i.e. personal credit) you have with your colleagues.

Does your colleague change their opinion of you the first time you do that? Hardly anyone would. What about the third time, or the thirteenth time? This month? Almost nobody wouldn’t. Is it because you’re a bad person, or because you aren’t smart, or aren’t a hard-worker? No. It’s because you’re piling up debt with your colleagues, and you’re asking them to be the bank.

If you’re a people leader interested in creating a culture where people hold themselves accountable — you need to help them learn how to clear their debts. You need to start with your own. (If you’re a leader and you think you don’t have any, you should reconsider your line of work).

What does it mean to pay your debts in this context? It means starting with an assumption: that saying “I’m sorry” is the equivalent of paying the monthly minimum. If you want to clear the balance you have to do something more. You have to pay the interest.

Here are three steps you can check on with yourself as you practice your self-accountability skills:

  1. Did you follow-up? Go back to the person whose life you impacted the day after. Ask them if they have a moment. Then, let them know that you did some thinking about what happened and you wanted to let them know why it happened and what your plan is for when a similar situation arises in the future.

  2. Did you inconvenience yourself? A non-self-accountable person assumes that they didn’t create extra work for the other person, that it was no big deal. An accountable person knows that they did. If you flubbed a deadline that caused your colleague to have to scramble, it’s your job to figure out how to make it better, not theirs. Don’t ask them how you can help (more work for them), find a way that you can.

  3. Did you put it in the “shame” bucket or the growth bucket? The purpose of being accountable isn’t to feel shame or guilt. Making other people’s lives harder (and sometimes much harder), doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you a human. For the voice in your head who tells you otherwise, tell them to stick it.

Accountability, in the eyes of your teammates, is not measured by the words that you use but by the actions that you take.

Do you pay your balance at the end of the month, or are you only paying the monthly minimum?

It’s your credit score.

*While you’ll never find a credit card that doesn’t have a credit limit, you may find yourself in a relationship with someone like that. Ask yourself if it’s a relationship that’s in either of your best interests.

Jonathan Raymond