Growing a Culture of Accountability


Growing a culture of accountability sounds great, but how do we do it? One important observation about people is that we almost don’t hear or see things that we think we have heard or seen before. So it is actually quite hard to get the full, present moment, attention of a colleague at work. We all develop our usual routine supported by our usual beliefs and we believe we know about ourselves. We may initially be a touch curious about other people’s routines and beliefs but soon start to believe that we know about them too. Why? Because our projection of what is coming is at least partially familiar and we sort of fill in the blanks from there. We become absent from the moment.

When it comes to discussing accountability, what is your picture of that conversation? What are some phrases that are likely to be used? What are some responses to questions that you have used in the past that worked pretty well? See, predictability, filling in blanks and rolling with the routine. In this environment, what actually ‘goes in’ through to my true awareness? What is the thinking about, other than about finding an acceptable answer to deflect the questioner? What if the deflection is the only thing being thought about?

Notice what you expect will happen in that scenario, at the start of a conversation about something that you are responsible for doing, and it isn’t done or not done well. Just let that anticipated scene sink in a bit and notice the body sensations associated with all of this expectation.

So, the person you had committed to do the work with or for, says this, “what’s working?” Notice where your thoughts went. Notice any change in your physiology. What is happening for you? This is not the usual expected opening of an accountability discussion. Once the initial impact has settled, notice where the mind goes next. You have been asked a question and an answer has been requested. They really want to know ‘what is working’. OK, you, maybe cautiously at first, tell them what you believe is working and because it is working you are speaking about the parts that you have accomplished, mastered, achieved control over. How does that feel? How does that feel compared to the feelings you took on before the start of the accountability conversation? Now if the colleague seems to truly listen to your answers, maybe even praises some of the working parts, what does that generate within you?

The next question your colleague then asks is, “what did you learn so far?”. Notice your feelings at hearing this second question. This is an accountability conversation, so this question may indeed not be all that common. And you absorb the question to search your mind, find some bits of learning and offer some answers. How does that feel? You get to self discover some learning for you and by speaking about it you solidify it within you. Most people will at least include what they learned about what not to do next time. So they/you get to take some responsibility for not completing as was expected, in a relatively safe format. Let the colleague listen fully and only respond with questions of clarification, no judgment etc, plus, inviting what was learned beyond what didn’t work. Note how this feels compared to getting on your knees and pounding your chest repeating ‘mea culpa’.

Notice the feelings called forth by the form of these two questions. Notice that none of this matters a twit if the colleague does not stay with you and really listen to your answers.

Final question, “what’s next?”.  Hold it. No yelling or admonition or list of faults or a what you have to do from now on lecture? Really? The expected options are among the common responses or conclusions of an accountability conversation. Note your reaction to them, especially when someone stacks a few of them together. ‘What’s next?’, by itself, with a gentle silence after, has again placed the responsibility of coming up with a usable answer on you. If the invitation is offered genuinely and the expectation that you sense from your colleague seems to be that they truly believe you can provide a good answer, you are likely to dig deep to find answers that you can own. At least a little bit, you want to look good and maybe even stretch yourself to kind of compensate for not coming through. When you provide the answer, it is almost like a commitment already. You might even volunteer to commit to incorporating your own ‘what’s next’ result into your behaviour. A natural resolve to do better next time shows up. Nice.

What happened here?

You were held accountable.

You started with a recognition that some parts of the situation are just fine, might even be stellar. From that base of competence and without the threat of the usual starts to such a conversation, you looked around and found some useful learning. When you spoke to describe the learning you strengthened your resolve to use the learning from then onward. When you felt the confidence that the third question, ‘what’s next’, was wrapped in, you probably knew the conversation was about to end. You were not going to be fired. Your colleague believed you could do better, so much so that they simply invited you to decide on next steps.

They may end with a summary of what they heard, or simply say, ‘thank you’. Either way, the seed of a culture of in the moment, on the spot, accountability, has been planted. There is a feeling of ‘I owe it to myself and to my colleague to do what I’m supposed to do and do it well’. No ashes. No sackcloth. New confidence instead.


What worked?

What did you learn?

What’s next? (because of what worked and what you learned)


Practice asking yourself the three questions and noticing the answers. Note that you can use them for praise and celebration as well. Use often in group meetings. Use often for everything and watch how accountability is soon no longer considered to be a four letter word.

Joseph Seiler MCC