Are you accountable? If you’re like most people, your answer to that question is an automatic “Yes” or maybe even an indignant “Of course, why are you even asking me?” After all, you don’t believe that you’re above the law or lie about your behavior like Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. And you’re no Anthony Weiner (Or is that Carlos Danger?), either: You don’t move heaven and earth to shift the blame when you’re clearly the one at fault. And you’re not like Sarah, your reliably unreliable coworker, who is chronically late and always full of convenient excuses.
But are you truly in the clear? Probably not, say Julie Miller and Brian Bedford, authors of Culture Without Accountability—WTF? What’s the Fix?. They contend that most of us are guilty of small behaviors that crack our accountability façade and hurt us, both personally and professionally, far more than we realize.
“We know from the Lance Armstrongs, Jerry Sanduskys, and Bernie Madoffs of the world what accountability absolutely isn’t,” notes Miller. “But rarely do we stop to examine what accountability is in action. That’s why it’s so easy for little behaviors—‘accountability killers,’ if you will—to worm their way unnoticed into our lives.”
“Often, we’re critical of these behaviors when we see them displayed by other people, but we give ourselves a pass when we’re the ones engaging in them,” comments Bedford. “We tell ourselves, It’s just a one-time thing…I don’t usually act like this. But that just doesn’t hold water. No matter how often it does or doesn’t happen, failing to act accountably can damage your reputation, your relationships, your career opportunities, and more.”
Here, in no particular order, the authors share a list of their personal pet-peeve “accountability killers”:
Showing up late. Sure, there are legitimate reasons why even the most responsible person might be running late: a fender bender, a sick child, an unfortunate coffee spill, to name just a few. And yes, everybody gets a pass on this one from time to time when life’s curveballs happen. But if it happens again and again, you’ve got a problem.
“If tardiness is a habit—if others expect it from you rather than being surprised by it—you’re not being accountable,” says Miller. “In effect, what you’re saying is, ‘I don’t value your time. I believe I’m more important than you’—or at the very least, ‘It’s not important to me to honor the agreement we made.’”
Saying you’ll do it…and then not doing it. Again, sometimes “life” happens. If an unforeseen accident or crisis derails your best intentions, most folks are likely to understand. But if you fail to meet your commitments more than once or twice, you lack accountability. “If you find yourself constantly making excuses, asking for more time, or expecting others to understand why you ‘just didn’t get around to it,’ it’s time to make a change,” comments Bedford. “Either start pushing yourself harder or stop making promises you can’t keep.”
Being offended by the truth. When someone calls you out—for dropping the ball, for behaving badly, etc.—how do you react? “If you’re indignant or offended instead of accepting that the other person has made a valid observation, you’ve just killed your accountability,” points out Miller. “Denying or just having a bad attitude about what’s obviously true will cause your credibility and trustworthiness to take a significant hit.”
Covering up mistakes. The fact that others don’t know about a slip-up doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. “If nothing else, your accountability will suffer in your own eyes,” asserts Bedford. “You also run the risk of setting a bad precedent for yourself. The next time something comes up, you’ll think, Well, last time this happened I just shredded the document, or, I’ll just delete the customer’s email again. No one noticed before.
Blaming others. The so-called “blame game” is one in which nobody wins—least of all the person pointing the finger. Even if the fault lies with someone else, says Miller, part of being an accountable person means doing your best to offer solutions in addition to pointing out problems. And if the blame does lie with you, it’s dishonest and reprehensible to attempt to shift it to someone else.
Asking others to cover for you. “I have to leave a little early to run errands—will you just tell the boss I wasn’t feeling well if she asks?” Or, “I’m going to bail on John’s party but I don’t want to hear him whine about the fact that I won’t be coming. Just let him know something came up, all right?” Yes, these scenarios sound familiar to most of us. But that doesn’t mean that asking someone to deflect blame, conflict, or questions from you is acceptable.
Doing the bare minimum. Is your M.O. to do just enough to get by and then hope no one calls you on it? Do you ever withhold information or shoot down ideas that could make a project better because it will require you to do more work?
Not offering an explanation for bad behavior… I admitted I was wrong—do I have to get into the nitty-gritty details of why? you ask. “Well, yes,” responds Bedford. “Acknowledging that the fault was yours is the first step—but only the first step. If you don’t truthfully explain why you acted as you did, others might still question your motivation, judgment, etc. You may still be viewed as lacking accountability.”
…or trying to justify it with a bad one. There are a lot of adult versions of “The dog ate my homework.” But usually, our peers can see through them. “You don’t do yourself any favors when you try to talk yourself out of taking responsibility,” points out Miller. “It just makes you seem as though you believe you are above the law.”
Ignoring others’ bad behavior. Remember that time when one of your peers was throwing his weight around and bullying one of his employees? Not wanting to get involved in the drama, you took the “none of my business” approach to dealing with the problem. You chose not to speak up about the guy’s bad behavior to keep yourself out of the line of fire.
“Here’s a reality check,” says Bedford. “Ignoring someone else’s bad behavior is just as bad as committing the act yourself. When people see you ignoring these problems, especially when you’re in a position to do something about them, they think you’re approving the bad behavior. They assume you’re the same kind of person as the manager yelling at his employees. Don’t be guilty by association. Speak up and show that you value fairness and respect.”
Communicating in an immature manner. Gossiping at the water cooler. Sniping at your spouse instead of having a mature discussion. Making jokes at your brother’s expense. Giving a friend the silent treatment without explaining why. Making faces behind the boss’s back. The secretive nature of such communications is what makes them immature—after all, adults confront problems head-on—and indulging in it really eats away at your accountability.
“Always strive to be honest and up-front,” advises Miller. “At best, immature communication fails to produce useful results. And much more often, it causes others’ opinion of your character to drop.”
Failing to take—or give—feedback. When you can’t or won’t take feedback, you communicate to others that you aren’t interested in improving your performance. That’s pretty obvious. But there are also accountability implications associated with being unwilling to give feedback—it shows that you’re concerned with only your piece of the puzzle instead of the big picture.
Expecting an “A” for effort. Accountability isn’t about following orders. It’s about meeting expectations. If you ever find yourself using the “I did what you says!” excuse, know that you’re killing your accountability. “Expecting to be praised for doing what you were told to do even though the end result completely misses the mark won’t win you many friends in your professional or personal life,” says Miller. “You have the responsibility to speak up when you know or suspect that something isn’t right or won’t end up meeting expectations.”
Forcing others to remind you to act. A colleague sends you several emails prompting you for the feedback you promised. Your spouse is constantly asking when you’ll fix the leaky faucet you says you’d take care of. A friend sheepishly reminds you that you owe her money for several meals she covered. Every other day, your boss has to tell you to act as though serving customers is a privilege, not a chore.
“Whenever you force someone else to remind you of an obligation you’re fully aware of, you’re springing a leak in your accountability account,” Bedford explains.
Being a victim instead of a solution finder. Sometimes, the bad things that happen to you really aren’t your fault. You couldn’t have foreseen the fact that last night’s storm would cause a tree limb to fall on your car. You didn’t cause the economy to wreak havoc on your retirement account. And you certainly didn’t intend to catch that nasty flu. But guess what? The way you choose to handle these situations can still add to or detract from your accountability.
“If you didn’t grumble, gripe, and complain sometimes, you wouldn’t be human,” admits Miller. “But after you’ve vented your feelings, do what you can to find a solution and move forward. You can either be known as a problem tackler or a problem wallower—the choice is yours. I recommend choosing the former, which shows resilience and maturity. Let others see that you’re willing to take responsibility, even when a problem wasn’t your fault.”
Having a “me-first” attitude. During a night out, Bob zips into the last parking space at a crowded restaurant, conveniently “not noticing” that another driver had been waiting on it. After the meal, he sees that he was undercharged, but decides to simply consider the appetizer that didn’t make it onto the bill a windfall. On the way home, Bob encounters a car trying to merge onto the freeway, but speeds up instead of letting the other driver into his lane.
“Yes, Bob sounds like quite a jerk,” acknowledges Bedford. “But the truth is, most of us have been Bob at one point or another. Having a ‘me-first’ attitude, especially when it means hurting or willfully inconveniencing someone else, hurts your accountability, because you’re showing yourself to be inconsiderate, selfish, and maybe even dishonest.”
“If you want to build genuine, lasting success in any aspect of your life, you need to be someone whom others can trust,” concludes Miller. “Anytime you give another person a reason to question your honesty, your dependability, your intentions, or your values, you’ll incur consequences. The good news is, most ‘accountability killers’—as well as their ramifications—are preventable if you’re willing to look closely and honestly at your own behaviors.”