Photo by Benjamin J. DeLong
I was having a conversation with the VP of HR of a very successful company that has a very strong culture. One reason he gave for that was they are able to balance being kind while maintaining accountability. I had to think about this, and I see it a little bit different. I think you can be nice while dropping out accountability. But “nice” as a way of being, is mostly about not upsetting people and making sure they’re comfortable. “Kind” is something different entirely. And the only way to be truly kind to someone is to provide something that allows them to grow or expand as a human being. In this article, I’m going to offer a slightly different take on accountability, how to apply it, and illustrate how it helps people grow.
Let’s start with a question. What’s a person? If we took a Family Feud style survey of 100 people on the street, we’d probably find that most of us think a person is a collection of traits walking around in a human body. At the same time, if 1000 years ago you asked the average person, “what is the world?” the survey probably would have said that it’s this flat piece of land that sits underneath the heavens. At the time, it was so obvious what the world was; why would you question it? However, some people did and in doing so, radically transformed the way we view the universe and our place in it. In doing so, things became possible that, in a “flat piece of land under the heavens” view of the world would have never even been imaginable. Things like going to the moon, satellite communications, and space-based telescopes would have been unimaginable, much less doable.
If it’s worth rethinking our view of the world, it might be worth rethinking our reflex, person-on-the-street understanding of what it is to be a human being. As opposed to the collection of traits view, Human Being, as we understand it here, arises in the ability to use language. To illustrate, answer for yourself the question: who am I? What is immediately there for you are a lot of words. When I answer the question I get something like, “I” (a word) am “Scott Herbst” (more words) who is… and then fill in more words like “thoughtful,” “analytic,” “funny,” “anxious,” etc. Sure, those words describe general patterns of behavior, but we forget the descriptions are not actually the behavior. They’re general descriptions, and we (and the people in our lives) forget that and then think that the descriptions are who we are. We forget the descriptions are simply a bunch of words that describe things we have done in the past.
I say that a person is something bigger than a collection of traits, walking around in body. If you take a moment to examine your behavior a little, you will see it too. Think about it. When you say, “I” what are you talking about? “I” is this perspective from which we look that is distinct from all the other perspectives from which all the “yous” and “thems” look. As a perspective, it is unique, but it only exists by virtue of there being other perspectives. The only reason anyone has for ever saying or thinking the word “I” is to distinguish it from all the other perspectives one could take. If there were no other perspectives, there would be no reason to say “I.” You wouldn’t need to say “I” and you wouldn’t need a name. You wouldn’t even have (or be able) to speak because language only matters when it’s shared between two or more people.
Said briefly (if not simply), the only reason there’s an “I” is because there’s a “you” and “them” against which “I” exists. Your experience of your existence – as a collection of traits walking around in a body – is only possible because there are other people walking around with that same experience. I know at a glance it doesn’t seem that way. But at a glance it doesn’t seem like we’re on a giant sphere hurtling through space as we orbit a giant ball of burning gas.
The next thing I want you to get is that, if we take this view, then you/I/we have to be something more than a collection of traits walking around in a body. If our very existence depends on other people, then it must go beyond our body and our traits. If that’s the case, then where do we exist, really?
I say we (not as a body, but as self, experienced) exist in the language we share with others. And in that language we share with others, there are ways to expand our experience of ourselves and there are ways to contract it.
One way to expand it is inside accountability. Now, accountability tends to be a loaded word. It often occurs to people as a burden or a chance to get in trouble. Usually when people say something like, “there’s no accountability,” they mean something along the lines of, “people don’t get in trouble when they don’t keep their promises.”
That isn’t what accountability means. When one is accountable, it simply means they are responsible, and willing to account for, their actions. Now, “responsible” is a loaded word as well. Usually when we say, “who is responsible?” what we mean is, “who do I blame for this mess.” But being responsible just means to be the cause of something. That goes for what’s working as well as not working. That’s why when we say something like, “a responsible adult,” we’re talking about someone we can trust to get what’s needed done.
In a moment, we’ll talk about how holding someone to account is doing them a kindness. For now, let’s look at what it means to hold someone to account, given our adjusted definition of accountability. In accountability (as accounting for), here’s what’s entailed in the act of holding someone to account:
Acknowledge the promise. What did they say would get done? What did you expect? By when was it supposed to be done? And in what quality or quantity? In other words, get clear on what the promise was. This is your measuring stick.
Acknowledge what got done. Was the work complete? Appreciate the complete work. Was it on time? Acknowledge that. Did you get as much as you were expecting, and did it meet your standards of acceptability? Yes? Point to it. Be clear on what got accomplished.
Acknowledge what did not get done. Was anything missing or was it complete but late? Was it not up to standards? Say so. You don’t have to be mean or make the person feel bad about it. Similarly, you don’t have to feel bad about bringing it up. It might be uncomfortable, and this way of handling things might take some getting used to, but when you start dealing with the facts instead of sugar-coating or avoiding them, life will get a lot easier.
Deal with the consequences of what didn’t get done. Who will be affected? Have they been told? Have new promises been made? Are there standard disciplinary actions and are you following them? Again, this can be matter-of-fact. If you cut yourself while slicing vegetables, you don’t get weird about putting on a band-aid. You don’t need to get weird about dealing with the consequences of a broken promise.
Make new promises. If the old promise was completed, take on what’s next. If not, make there’s a “what” and “by when” regarding completing the incomplete promise.
Take this on as a routine practice, and you will be doing your people an immense kindness. Why is that? Because if we only exist by virtue of communication with other people, then the quality of our existence is determined by the depth of communication. And conversations for accountability have depth.
Think about it. Do you know why we hate small talk, and why people think conversation about the weather is trivial? It isn’t because the weather is trivial. The weather IS NOT trivial. It’s one of the most important things we deal with on a day to day basis. How is that “small.”
It seems small because, as much as it has to do with us and what happens in our lives, we have nothing to do with it. I didn’t make today 77o and beautiful and I didn’t make it thunderstorm yesterday. But the weather yesterday and today had a big say about where I decided to have lunch (inside and outside, respectively). We don’t want to talk about it because it’s beyond our control. I am not accountable for the weather and it would be silly for me to agree to be so.
But when we make a promise to someone we give our word to something. If who we are – and our experience of self – is constituted in language, then we’re really giving ourselves to something. We put ourselves out beyond a collection of traits and a body to carry them, and put them into something bigger than that. We – I – now exist beyond that body.
This is why accountability, and the process of taking account for my word, is so important. When I keep my word, my sense of self expands. When I break my word, my sense of self is broken. Putting in the above practice around accountability gives me the opportunity to right my – literally – self.
Does this sound conceptual and theoretical to you? Like it’s a good idea, but… Whether it is or not, I invite you to put it to the test. Look at a place where you kept a promise, it took something to keep the promise, and those around you acknowledged your efforts. What was that like? Now think of a time when you didn’t keep a promise, you didn’t acknowledge it, and no one called you on it. How was that? I’ll bet the experience was night and day. In the first example, your sense of self expanded. You felt accomplished. You were ready for the next challenge. In the second, you probably had the experience of “too much to do,” and being drained, or at least a little overwhelmed or annoyed. After awhile, you probably got used to the feeling and felt you were over it. I’ll bet, though, if you still haven’t dealt with it from our model of accountability, thinking about it was no fun. You probably felt some of those same old feelings.
Now, if you can remember, think of a time where you let a promise lapse, called yourself out on it, got into communication, and dealt with what there was to deal with it to make it right. You might not be able to. A lot of times when that happens we forget it about, because it’s handled. However, if you can put yourself there, I’ll bet the moment you had a new promise in place, whether you had followed through yet or not, there was a freedom there that wasn’t there the moment before.
This illustrates why accountability is critical. It isn’t simply that it allows us to produce results, but that it allows us to experience the aliveness, the fulfillment, and the satisfaction that goes along with them.
I’ll conclude with a challenge to you: go make a promise. Put yourself on the hook for something. If you have something outstanding, have that be it. Get in communication with the people you owe a result to. If your results are handled, then take on something new. Who you are, and your world will get bigger.
If you’re a manager, look where you haven’t been holding people to account and where you’ve been letting things slide. Consider your willingness to tolerate and step over people’s unaccountability is hurting them. Step up, have the difficult conversation, and get a new promise in place. It might be uncomfortable for a moment, but the aliveness that comes with it will make up for it.