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January 1st, 2016

What Does "Accountability" Really Mean?

By Ron Nakamoto

One of Empowered Wealth’s clients asked me to devote a portion of an upcoming workshop to training on “Accountability”. It’s caused me to take a deeper look into the subject ​.

​For me and I believe most other people, accountability is about taking responsibility for obligations, promises, commitments, ​duties, ​etc. It involves demonstrating responsibility through actions​ (​i.e., doing what ​we​ say ​we​’re going to do​;​ “walking our talk”​)​. It’s​ ​following through on our ​promises, commitments, job description, etc.

​One question that comes to mind is, “To whom am I accountable?”​ I think we always have to be accountable to ourselves because our intentions, our aspirations, our self-image, and self-esteem are all impacted by whether or not we fulfill our obligations, promises, and commitments. Beyond ourselves, we are also accountable to others under many circumstances. We make agreements with others, even if they may be tacit (as in accepting the laws of a country or the rules of a workplace). Studies and surveys indicate that at some level and in some way, most of us also hold ourselves accountable to a Deity or Higher Power.​ So we’re accountable to ourselves and various “others”.

Certainly we’re accountable for actions and behaviors. I think it’s important to ​accept what is truly within our control and do what it takes to make things right​ when we fail to live up to our promises, commitments, and obligations​. ​It’s also important to recognize w​hen circumstances are legitimately beyond our control. As American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in his well-known “Serenity Prayer”:

​God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

The “Serenity Prayer” begs the questions, “What behavior or action are we being held accountable for? What are​ ​the​ standards​ we’re being​ held accountable​ to​?” Here’s where mindset and our predictable irrationality (to paraphrase psychologist Dan Ariely and others) can come into play. We might have an attitude that we’re better than others or that we don’t have to fulfill our commitments because of our status, our wealth, or a delusional self-image. That’s a different mindset when it comes to accountability than one in which our word means we’ll do whatever it takes to fulfill a promise. In this sense, it’s apparent that “how” we show up can make a big difference. ​We can choose to be inconsistent or even unreliable when it comes to accountability. According to trust expert Charles Green, this has the effect of diminishing trust in relationships. In a working environment, this can be especially problematic and career-threatening. Certainly, reduced trust usually means reduced business and personal opportunities.

​Even if we do fulfill our promises, commitments, duties, and obligations​, we might choose to do so ​in a perfunctory, apathetic way. ​In this instance, w​e do what we say we’re going to do; we ​perform the task or finish the assignment; but we so in an emotionally detached way. Alternatively, we ​might​ be accountable in a surly, negative way.​ Neither apathy or overt negativity are in my view beneficial ways of being. ​But we can also ​be accountable​ in a respectful, caring way. We’ll call this latter way “Attentiveness”; being present and focused in a positive way while being accountable. We ​might​ also fulfill our promises, commitments, and obligations with “Appreciation”, “a genuine recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something.” This could even include elements of playfulness or fun. Finally, we can conduct our activities in a manner that demonstrates true care and an unconditional desire to serve others when the appropriate circumstances present themselves. Perhaps this might be called “Agape” (the Greek word for unconditional love).

What if we told ourselves, “I’m the kind of person who is fulfills my commitments with attentiveness, appreciation, and the spirit of ‘Agape'”? This is a mindset that accepts accountability to ourselves and others for the commitments we make and the obligations we accept. It’s also a mindset that aspires to treat others and ourselves with care and consideration. Wharton professor Adam Grant might describe this attitude as being a “Giver”, not a “Taker”.

How might this make a difference in our personal and professional lives?

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