The One Thing That Leaders With High Levels of Personal Accountability Have in Common

Have you ever experienced a moment in which critical plans were derailed, everything seemed to go wrong, and you were left asking, “How did that happen?” 

Whether in our personal or professional lives, the feeling can be disconcerting. It may make us feel as though certain circumstances are out of our control. In response, we throw up our hands in frustration. How much responsibility can we — or should we — take when things go so wrong? Let’s dig in with a real-life example.


On the Frontlines of Personal Accountability 

I was flying from Alabama to Minnesota to host a workshop for the plant leadership team at a large food manufacturer. After a smooth flight, I arrived at 10:30 p.m., got in my rental car, and plugged in the address of my hotel, eager to settle in before a big day ahead. There was just one problem: the GPS indicated that there was a 448-mile commute ahead of me. Startled, I refreshed the screen. On the display I saw the same distance and the same estimated time. How could it be? I stopped to consider the situation. What was I doing in Chicago? My flight should have been booked to Minneapolis. The travel coordinator had made a mistake. 

I knew there was no way I could miss the next day’s session. Exhausted and frustrated, I started my overnight drive, asking myself again and again, “How did this happen?

With the miles stretched ahead of me, I began planning the discussion I was going to have with the travel coordinator, pinpointing where she dropped the ball and failed to follow through. But after an hour or so of this finger-pointing exercise, in which I was externalizing the problem onto someone else, I reevaluated the situation. 

What was my role in creating the problem? My flight had been on my calendar months in advance. Why hadn’t I looked at it more closely? I was the one getting on the plane to visit my clients, I thought. How did I let this happen?

With those two simple words — I let — I reframed my experience and acknowledged what I could have done to achieve a different outcome. My first reaction wasn’t wrong — someone had let me down — but I understood that I had to take personal accountability for the outcome in order to prevent it from happening in the future. 

Why Is Personal Accountability Important?

Personal accountability is not the same as merely accounting for our transgressions — this negative understanding of accountability not only paints it as a punitive thing, but fails to capture the breadth of its true meaning. It suggests that accountability is what happens when we’ve performed poorly. A consequence. But in reality, personal accountability is a proactive decision that we should greet as an opportunity. 

According to the New York Times bestseller, The Oz Principle, accountability is a “personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results.” 

Demonstrating personal accountability involves seeing a problem and taking ownership over solving it — rather than blaming others or bemoaning the limitations of circumstance. Accountable people  ask, “How did I let that happen?” not “How did that happen?” There’s a big difference between the two.

Employees and leaders who take accountability are those who See It, Own It, Solve It, Do It. In my case, I saw that a scheduling mistake had been made and took psychological ownership over it as my own problem. When it was time for my next trip, I solved any scheduling problems preemptively by thoroughly reviewing my travel information in advance. I did what I resolved to do — and, sure enough, everything went according to plan. By taking accountability for the problem, I was able to ensure it never happened again. 

Employees who refuse to take personal accountability — by instead externalizing responsibility — remain in a holding pattern of behavior that yields undesirable results. Problems reoccur, productivity stalls, and employee engagement plummets. 

Research indicates this is a widespread problem: data from the Partners In Leadership Workplace Accountability Index reveals that a whopping 74% of people are unwilling to acknowledge when they contribute to a problem. A lack of personal accountability hampers the performance of individuals, teams, and entire organizations. 

Setting the Bar for Personal Accountability in the Workplace

To this day, I use my scheduling story in events with organizations across the globe. As I share this experience with employees, I watch the lightbulb go on. People in the room have been in my shoes. They all know what it’s like to ask, “How did that happen?” Suddenly, it becomes evident to them why this approach rarely produces desired results. 

They feel inspired to see the problems that arise, take psychological ownership over them, leverage their resources and skills to effectively solve those problems, and execute. As such, they achieve more in their careers and they drive greater business results for their organizations.

It’s up to leaders to share important stories that evidence the power of personal accountability and to set precedents by modeling desired behaviors. When they do so, employees take note. They begin asking themselves how their attitudes and behaviors factor into outcomes — not just the attitudes and behaviors of others.  

To learn more, purchase our winning leadership book How Did That Happen. Examine the other side of the accountability coin: holding people accountable for results in a way that conquers all the damaging behaviors that permeate so many organizations today.

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