Accountability – Useful, But Tricky

I often have conversations about accountability or with people needing to be held accountable. It seems like one of those things that we all understand, but when you try to easily define it, the words seem to somehow miss. Here’s a couple of definitions that I found:


  1. …subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible;answerable.
  2. …capable of being explained; explicable; explainable.


That really doesn’t easily nail down what I’m talking about. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to start with the following as our working foundation.

  1. You give a commitment that something will happen. A goal or condition will be met, by some particular time.
  2. At the end of that time, there is a check to see if that goal or condition has been met.
  3. If the goal or condition has been met, you were accountable. If the goal or condition was not met, you were not accountable.

To be clear, this has nothing to do with right or wrong, good or bad, but rather at any given time, you are accountable or not accountable for any particular goal or condition that was agreed upon. Phew!….That’s a mouthful and sounds really heavy. So let’s look at a real world situation that many of us are familiar with.

“I really need to lose about 20lbs, and what would really help is someone to hold me accountable.” Most of us have heard, read or said some version of this. When you really think about it, it’s like saying, “I can’t trust myself to do what I need to do to lose 20 lbs, but if I had to account for my eating and exercise to another person, I’d probably be more successful.” So let’s break this down a bit more.

When it really comes down to it, if you were truly 100% accountable in your life, any decision you made, any goal or condition you set would always be attained. You wouldn’t need another person, you would just do what you decided to do and get it done. Well, we aren’t always the 100% on-target goal-crushing machines that we would like to be for ourselves, so it’s often crucial to involve another person. Setting up accountability with someone is a very particular relationship.

Accountability is basically a two person relationship. There is a person requesting to be held accountable, and another who is willing to check on that accountability. It’s really that simple. Yes, you can have more than one person hold you accountable for any given outcome, but each person is a separate relationship. You may want to put some thought into who you ask to hold you to account.

A lot of times, our first instinct is to ask someone close to us to hold us accountable. A friend or a family member may be the easiest to ask, but may not be the best person for the job. Friendships are generally developed with people who have similar interests, behaviors and ideals. Sometimes one of those ideals is to ignore each other’s shortcomings. There can be this mutual unspoken agreement to specifically not point out to each other when we are falling short. We often lean on friends when things aren’t going well for us, even if we are the source of the problem. Friends tend to commiserate with each other rather than hold each other to account.  There may be similar issues with family members. Whoever you choose you need to have a conversation where you clearly set up expectations between you and who you ask to hold you accountable.

You want to be clear about the goal that you want to attain. I suggest the SMART method. The goal should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-Focused and Time-Bound. So, “I’d like to lose some weight, and I’d like you to hold me accountable for it,” wouldn’t be a very SMART goal. It’s non-specific, not very results-focused and not time-bound. A better way to frame it would be, “I want to lose 15 pounds in two months.” It’s still simple but meets all the criteria. Then have a conversation with your accountability person about how exactly you want them to hold you to account.

The particular goal of losing 15 pounds should be set in time. In two months, eight weeks, that works out to losing about 1.8 pounds a week. I would suggest breaking down the goal to losing 2 pounds a week, and checking in with your accountability person every week. Each week you will either meet that goal or not. Given the level of effort or ability to reach each week’s commitment, you may find that your original goal isn’t as achievable as you thought, or is too easy and want to make some adjustments. The main job of your accountability person is just to report if you did or did not meet your goal. You may want to choose a person who will go beyond checking your accountability and offering coaching in either adjusting your goals or altering your actions to help you meet those goals.

If you are the person seeking accountability:

  • Choose your accountability person wisely.
  • Specifically speak with them about how you want them to hold you accountable.
  • Be honest with yourself when you find yourself making excuses.
  • Don’t try to hold your accountability person responsible for your failure to be accountable.

If you are the person holding someone accountable:

  • Get clear about how the person wants you to hold them accountable.
  • Do not try to hold someone accountable for something they have not asked to be held accountable for.
  • The person is either accountable or not. This is separate from good/bad or right/wrong.
  • If you are coaching them, be clear about being in line with supporting them to reach their goals, NOT what you think their goals should be.

Accountability can seem very heavy. For me, I think this comes from that little voice in my head that had been telling me for some time that I need to take action on something. “You need to lose 10 lbs”, “You need to eat better”, “You need to exercise more”, are just a few of the words I’ve found myself saying. When you find yourself resisting that little voice, involving an accountability person can make a difference in you getting into action.

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