In this article, we’ll look at the “What is accountability?” question from two different perspectives. First, I’ll show you the rosy picture, so you can understand why so many coaches and clients like accountability. Then we’ll take a deeper look, and I’ll share with you why I’m not a fan.
The Rosy Picture
Accountability is a way of taking your dreams and goals out of your head, where they may have been happily floating around for years, and bringing them into reality.
Having someone else expect you to actually do stuff.
The process is pretty straightforward:
- Rope someone into helping you with your personal project.
- Meet with that person regularly.
- Each meeting, report on your progress since the last meeting and commit to taking certain actions by your next meeting.
All of a sudden, amorphous dreams become solid, real, vital, urgent. They have action steps. With deadlines. And someone else is watching to make sure you meet those deadlines.
A Deeper Look
Accountability is a powerful tool that can kick you into action like almost nothing else, but, in my view, it has some serious downsides. I don’t use it with my clients and rarely use it when I’m working on something myself (and generally only with accountability software). In the rest of this article, I’ll walk you through my concerns about it, so you’ll have both sides of the story and can decide what’s best for you.
What is accountability, really?
When I first heard coaches talking about accountability, it sounded like a impressive, fancy, productivity tool.
But when I saw it in action, I thought, “Hey, wait a minute. This whole accountability thing is just glorified nagging.” And it has all the embarrassment, guilt, resentment, stress, and weird dynamics that typically come with nagging.
Why accountability works (when it works)
If you aren’t working a project, why would you start doing it when someone holds you accountable?
Generally, the answer is — fear of embarrassment. You know your accountability person is going to ask you how your assignment went, and you don’t want to have to be embarrassed and mumble, “I didn’t do it,” while looking at your feet.
In other words, you’re using negative motivation — the desire to avoid being embarrassed — to motivate yourself. In my view, negative motivation structures aren’t the way to go. They feel bad, and they’re not all that sustainable over the long haul.
Why do you need accountability?
If you’re doing a project that you really care about and that you enjoy doing, do you need accountability?
As a general rule, no.
You may sometimes want an accountability person to help give you some structure or raise the priority on a fun project. But, most of the time, if you enjoy doing something and it’s important to you, you’ll do it naturally.
People generally bring in accountability to get themselves to do things that they don’t enjoy. Things that are uncomfortable, difficult, or scary.
Some suffering and misery may be necessary to achieve certain goals. But, as a general rule, I think it’s a better strategy to try to find ways of accomplishing our goals that fit our personalities, values, and interests. Approaches for which we have natural enthusiasm and don’t need accountability.
Accountability is, essentially, glorified nagging. It generally works because you don’t want to be embarrassed to report you haven’t done your assignments.
It’s generally used to push you to do tasks you dislike doing.
It’s not a fun, joyous dynamic to bring into your life, but it can be highly effective.
Is it for you?
That’s your call.
Even if you don’t like typical accountability, you may want to check out these creative accountability structures which are sweeter, kinder, and gentler approaches to accountability.