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April 19, 1999

To make accountability work in your life, you need

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1. At least two people

It doesn’t work for any of us to only be accountable to ourselves. We all have blind spots and areas in life in which we are stronger—and areas that we obviously need help with. It’s not wise to ask for accountability in the areas you’ve got under control—and ignore the ones you struggle with. You need to do the reverse. Ask people to hold you accountable for those areas that you are vulnerable to.

Accountability works best when you have at least two people checking in on you. Why? You never see just one referee or umpire at a professional sporting event—there are always at least two, because each person brings a different perspective, level of experience, or view of the situation. Working together these two people can give you the best advice and see your case more clearly.

The two people don’t have to be the best friends or life- time mates. They can be older or younger and they can live in different locations. But accountability begins with someone outside yourself.

“He that is taught only be himself has a fool for a master.” – Ben Jonson

2. Proactive, penetrating questions

Accountability is built around questions. They can come through the front door or they can come through the back door—whether obvious and deliberate, or subtle and casual, but the key is that they have to come through some door. Invite your accountability partners to ask precise and hard-hitting questions that cause a pause in the conversation. You want them to ask the tough questions that make you think, and that sometimes cause you a little pain.

Good questions outrank easy answers.—Paul Anthony Samuelson

Remember, a little pain now in questioning your activities and motives will save you enormous amounts of pain later when you’ve gone too far down the road to return.

3. The ability to listen

Accountability is not just the rapid firing of one question after the next. Yes, it’s about asking questions, but it’s also about listening. Encourage your accountability partners to leave you ample time after asking you questions to discuss your answers—and clarify any points that arise. You need them to truly care about you and your issues. They must take time to really get to know you, or else they’ll never be able to pinpoint the right questions to ask.

Conversation means being able to disagree and still continue the conversation. – Dwight MacDonald

4. Acceptance to know that if you fail they will help you up.

We all have failed, and we all will fail again. I love what Henry Beecher said: “Every man should have a fair-sized cemetery in which to bury the faults of his friends.” The best kind of accountability is the kind that hopes for the best but deals with the worst. It doesn’t create a standard of perfection that when broken the accountability relationship is over. There is a commitment, a safety net that both parties know is there to soften a fall and hopefully keep us ethically alive. A good accountability partner is very much a Golden Safety Net.

Nothing helps to keep a person honest like accountability.

1. Can you name any organizations or groups whose success is driven by accountability?

2. Have you experienced accountability at some level? For example, in dieting, exercising, in your marriage, or from your employer? What did accountability look like?

3. How did accountability help you achieve your goals?

4. Are you able to motivate and regulate yourself to achieve your goals? Grade yourself on self-discipline on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best: How disciplined are you?

5. Can you identify an area of ethical behavior in which you need some accountability?

Here’s an example of accountability at work: An office administrator for a medium-sized organization told the story of a grueling three months of transition in which three of his four major department leaders resigned or transitioned to another place in the company. He was left to handle all of the production and on-ramping of new employees. His hours, stress level, and cell phone bill shot through the roof.

After the workload slowed some, this administrator felt as if he need a day or two to recuperate, and that he deserved reimbursement for his enormous cell phone bill. The cell phone was a private account and the company had no history of giving comp days for excessive work demands. The administrator had the authority to order both for himself, but just to make sure it was on the up and up he consulted two other leaders on the same level in the company. After gaining their assurance that both were good choices in light of the situation, he proceeded. He not only proceeded with the execution of the decisions, but he did so with a clear conscience and confidence gained through accountability.

Just be forewarned: Just because two people say it’s OK to do something, know that you are ultimately responsible if the wrong choice is made. That means it’s up to you to choose accountability partners whom you trust implicitly.

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