It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.Excerpt from Invictus -William Ernest Henley
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about accountability, specifically personal accountability, and the implications for when and where it does or does not exist. When people hold themselves accountable, it shows up as taking ownership of their jobs, acknowledging responsibility for when things go wrong, choosing to learn from failures and improve and simply saying I am sorry. On the other hand, when people fail to hold themselves accountable for their actions, behaviors, and choices, you end up getting excuses, procrastination, blaming, victim thinking, and the list goes on. Regardless of where you fall on the scale of personal accountability, the level of success you achieve, your sense of fulfillment and the overall quality of your life and relationships might very well depend on it.
According to MindTools, management consultant Todd Herman defined personal accountability as ‘ being willing to answer for the outcomes resulting from your choices, behaviors and actions.” Therefore, personal accountability starts with each of us and places us squarely in the driver’s seat of the vehicle we call life. Yet, for some people, the word accountability is a bad word, and the idea of it (in whatever shape or form) produces anxiety and discomfort. For those people, being held accountable raises thoughts and feelings of inadequacy, fear, failure, or the perception of accountability as a form of corrective action. For others like myself, being held personally accountable is empowering and liberating, as it gives me a sense of direction and control over my life, my choices, and the inevitable results.
For this purposes of this post, I wanted to explore personal accountability and the ultimate responsibility we all have for our lives. Now, I have never fond of excuses. Growing up without both of my parents, I learned very early and quickly that a lot of things were going to be up to me. I remember making decisions about which high schools I wanted to attend, which extra-curricular activities I would participate in, organizing to attend field trips and making decisions on who would pick up my report card because my guardian could not.
This mindset of individual accountability travelled with me throughout my childhood to adulthood and even to my current roles as a single parent and working professional. So, it is safe to say that, I have had lots of practice and taking personal accountability is not hard for me. However, this is not the case for everyone. We all come from different backgrounds with varied experiences that have shaped and influenced how we show up in our personal and professional lives.
What happens when personal accountability is lacking
Earlier this year, I was talking to a friend about some challenges that he was experiencing. Turned out that his 2021 had started with a bang. He shared how everything was happening to him at the same time as he was experiencing serious difficulties in both his personal and professional life. The challenges had impacted his health and well-being, his job, and his personal relationships. I listened to him share and empathized with his situation out of the deep regard I have for him and our friendship. After the call, I could not shake the deep feeling of worry and frustration I felt for him.
Some of the challenges he described were not new and the writing had been on the wall. So, I sent him a text expressing my renewed concerns and reminded him that things were not just happening to him but that he had played a role in them. I asked him to reflect on how his actions had contributed to his current situation and encouraged him to take accountability. I hoped it would lead to change. Recently, I checked on him to see how things were going. I was hoping for progress but from what I heard, not much had changed. He seemed to have a problem for every solution I tried to help him with and could hardly commit to taking much needed action to help himself. The conversation left me tired and frustrated.
Coming to terms with the consequences of our individual actions, decisions and choices is never easy but we are sometimes forced to. And when many of are faced with challenging or difficult situations, our first thoughts are usually defensive or negative (See previous post on Automatic Negative Thoughts). From the example of my friend, when we fail to hold ourselves accountable for our actions and circumstances, our responses can range from thoughts of blaming, victim thinking, and procrastination as described below.
Blaming: What do you do when something goes wrong in your relationships, finances, health or on the job? Do you acknowledge your role or responsibility or are you quick to point a finger to someone else or something else that went wrong? Finger pointing or blaming shifts the responsibility from you to others. Over time, this blame shifting catches up with you and will break trust and damage your relationships.
Victim Thinking/Mentality: This is the tendency for some people to see themselves as victims of other people actions or as ‘stuck’ in difficult situations. People who take on this mindset are usually unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives and feel a sense of powerlessness to do anything to change it. People who see themselves as victims take on sense of helplessness which limits their ability to hold themselves accountable for anything.
Procrastination: Statements like ‘when this happens, I’ll do that” … or “one of these days, I am going to start …” are good examples of procrastination. I have watched people wait and hope for the “right time” and delay taking required action by finding a problem for every possible solution. Every time, we choose to delay or postpone a decision that can help to advance our goals and dreams, we undermine our growth and set ourselves back.
So how do you quit the blame game and practice greater personal accountability?
Here are five things you can do right now:
Say sorry: We all make mistakes and from time to time will hurt and offend others.When you make a mistake, take responsibility, and show ownership. If your actions or words hurt or offend someone, apologize, and make amends. Listen and learn from all conflicts or disagreements.
Acknowledge your roles and responsibilities: Start by reflecting on your different roles, what you responsible for, who are you accountable to and what is in your scope of control. While you cannot control all the things that happen to you, understanding and owing your responsibilities will help you to accept accountability and take required actions where necessary. Do not sit back and wait for your supervisor, friend, or family member to fix your situations. Personal accountability starts and stops with you.
Be honest with yourself: Sometimes the most powerful conversations we could have are the ones we have with ourselves. At some point or another, we must assess our lives and ask ourselves tough questions such as- am I changing for better or worse? am I failing or making progress? what do I need to do differently? Also ask yourself, who are you blaming for the situations that are currently happening in your life? Sit with the discomfort of your answers and then decide to take action to change. Do not normalize your dysfunction, instead call yourself out and to thine own self- be true.
Manage your time and your talents: It is easy to look at others pursing their goals and to compare yourself to them. Avoid the comparison trap for there is always going to be someone with five talents to your one. You are not expected to be them. You are only required to use your one talent to become that best version of you. So do not flirt with failure but making excuses about why or what you cannot do. Use your time wisely, set SMART goals and find an accountability partner who will support you as you work towards them day by day.
Change your questions. Asking questions is one of the main ways that we make sense of our lives and the world around us. So, what does your questions sound like? Are they solutions based or are they more likely to cause negative thoughts and feelings? As the saying goes, if you want better answers, ask better questions. To practice greater accountability, John G. Miller suggest that we ask the Question Behind Questions (QBQs). QBQs always starts with a how or what (the objective), includes I (you can only change yourself) and an action (for the way forward).Take a look at the examples below:
Question 1: Why is all this happening to me?
QBQ 1: What can I do to change my situation?
Question 2: Why do I have to do everything?
QBQ 2: How can I proactively ask my family or coworker for help?
QBQs help us to engage in thoughts that will drive us towards accountability and positive change rather than getting stuck in negative thoughts that can leave us feeling discouraged.
So, as you reflect your own personal accountability and how you show up, try practicing one of the tips and let me know if it works for you. You are responsible for creating the life you hope to have.
Until next time, practice personal accountability for your actions and choices. Remember, It’s A Learning Life!