Examples of accountability include taking personal responsibility, showing evidence of what you have and haven’t done, and regularly reporting on your progress.
Accountability is a trait of being responsible and open to having your decisions and actions scrutinized. An accountable person keeps their commitments and promises. If one thing goes wrong, an accountable person is open about their faults and failings.
Accountability is more often used as a term of self-governance, not an oversight of a body over an individual. Below are some of the best examples of accountability in personal and office situations.
1. Accountable people have to work for their success
An accountable person is responsible for the success or failure of their projects. As a result, they can’t just float under the radar. They have to step up and take action to ensure they are successful.
For example, in group work scenarios, there is a concept called interpersonal accountability. This means that every group member has a distinct group role. At group meetings, every group member must come and demonstrate that they have completed their assigned tasks. This is an accountable group.
By contrast, an unaccountable group will not assign group roles, which will likely lead to some group members coasting under the radar, while only a small number of the group members will carry all the hard work.
2. You take responsibility for failure
Failure happens to everyone. But only a small amount of people will own up to their personal failures. These are the people who hold themselves accountable.
Politics is a great example here. It’s rare to see a politician stand up and admit that they have failed or didn’t reach a goal they set. Instead, they will often try to blame someone else, talk about how the other guy is even worse, or just lie! They’re unaccountable.
By contrast, a person who takes responsibility will often step up and openly confirm that they failed, and potentially explain where they went wrong.
3. You are proactive and not reactive
An accountable person is more likely to take proactive action rather than simply react to problems. This is because they know that they will be accountable for failure.
Being proactive means attempting to prevent problems that you forecast or at least put preventive measures to reduce the damage. On the other hand, a reactive person waits for the damage to happen before they do damage control.
For example, let us say that you are managing a fleet of trucks. As a proactive manager, you take it upon yourself to put preventive measures such as ensuring that you have a process for checking the truck conditions before sending them off. This might include ensuring that all trucks have spare tires and tools necessary to replace flat tires on the road.
Of course, you’re more likely to do this if you’re accountable: you’ve been assigned this job and if you don’t do it, it’s on you!
4. You take feedback
Accountability is also about being receptive to feedback. For example, your boss may speak to you about how you can improve your work, and an accountable person is going to want to listen to the feedback.
People who have no accountability avoid feedback and criticism, even constructive feedback. This is because feedback and criticism are mechanisms of accountability: it ensures people are held to account for what they did.
For example, your teacher might hold you to account for your learning by setting formative assessments and giving feedback to show you how to improve.
By contrast, if you don’t take feedback, then you’re never going to learn what you did well or did poorly, and as a result, you’re unlikely to improve. So, feedback and even constructive criticism are good things.
5. You show ownership of your work
Showing ownership over your work is necessary for accountability. Your work needs to be traceable so if you make a mistake, you can be tracked down and told about it.
For example, an author of a controversial book might write it under an alias if they don’t want any blowback. In this case, they can say anything they want and not be held accountable for it.
Similarly, in the workplace, by showing who did what, the manager can retrace the process and figure out where the mistakes were made and work with the person who made the mistakes to improve.
At the same time, if you show ownership of something done well, you’ll be held accountable for a good reason: people can tell you did it and congratulate you!
6. You keep a record of what you have done
Keeping a record of what you have done helps you to stay accountable to people. It means you can trace exactly every step along the way, which can actually be good because it protects you!
For example, if you get audited by the tax office, you can show all of your invoices and receipts as proof that your income is actually earned legitimately. If you don’t keep clear records, you may not be able to account for what you have done, which may land you a higher tax bill!
Similarly, in a math test, you might have to keep a record of your work when solving your equation to show that you didn’t just guess – you actually knew what you were doing!
7. You report to someone
Almost by definition, an accountable person needs to report to someone else about their progress. This might be a boss, team members, parents, teachers, or even yourself!
For example, in the workplace, you may have performance meetings with your line manager in order to show them what you have been doing with your time at work. A good accountable workplace structure would include incentives such as pay rises for people who have met their goals and disincentives (maybe even losing your job) if you do not meet the standards set.
Similarly, at school, we’re accountable to our teachers – which is the point of exams – as well as our parents, in the form of school reports. At the same time, teachers and parents are accountable to one another. Teachers expect parents to support the school, while parents expect teachers to educate their children well.
8. You speak up when needed
Accountability may mean you need to speak up when necessary, even if it means you are a whistleblower. If you see something unethical, you might feel accountable to your peers and community, and feel the need to report it.
Of course, one of the problems with being a whistleblower is that you can end up being ostracized. It is why many people keep quiet when they see things they know are wrong. Here, they’re not holding themselves or the perpetrators to account.
9. You keep an accountability partner
One of the best ways to show that you’re an accountable person is to keep an accountability partner. This is a person who you meet with regularly to discuss how you’re progressing with your goals.
This involves making sure you set goals for yourself (which is an essential step – if you don’t have goals and roles, you don’t have accountability).
Once you have set those goals, you need to tell somebody – this is your accountability partner. Your partner will also tell you their goals as well.
Then, you may meet up weekly or monthly to report to each other about your progress.
An add-on to this is to set rewards and punishments associated with the goals, such as having to pay your accountability partner $25 if you don’t meet your goals.
10. You don’t move the goalposts
Moving the goalposts is an analogy rather than anything literal. It means that you set your goals and you don’t change them.
If we were to look at the term literally, we might see a game of football where the team moves their goalposts further away from the opponent so the opponent can’t score a goal.
But we often use this term to describe someone who has changed their goals or promises to make themselves look better.
You might say that your goal is to make $1000 in a month. At the end of the month, you only made $800, so you say “oh, my goal was really $700”. Here, of course, the person hasn’t been held to account for their original goal.
At the same time, a boss might do this to your disadvantage. For example, the boss might tell you they will give you a raise if you get the company 5 more clients. You gain 7 clients, but the boss then says there’s not enough money right now, so you will get the pay rise in 6 months’ time instead.
11. You’re transparent – Transparency is closely related to accountability. It refers to the act of showing what you have done and not hiding anything. If you’re transparent, you’re one step closer to being held accountable.
12. You are paid based on merit – An accountable pay scale would involve paying someone based on their productivity, or how hard they work, which prevents people from slacking off and floating under the radar at work.
13. You show your receipts – Imagine you’re being accused of shop-lifting. If you have your receipts, you can show that you didn’t do it! Having receipts keeps you, and your accuser, accountable.
14. You provide regular updates – If you are accountable to someone, then you’re probably going to give them regular updates.
15. You set KPIs – KPIs, or key performance indicators, are ways to hold yourself and your team accountable. They’re very common in workplaces to maintain productivity.
16. You settle your debts – An accountable person will always settle their debts. If they don’t, then they won’t be trusted. They won’t be able to approach someone and say “you can hold me accountable – I’ve got a strong record here”.
17. You’re honest – When someone asks for feedback, and your honest feedback would be harsh, you might find yourself in a tough situation. If you are honest, then you may lose a friend. If you lie, you will be dishonest. The accountable person will likely try to be honest so they can be held to account for their answer and always say that at least the answer was not deceptive.
18. You show your work – Anyone who’s done a math test knows that you need to show your work to prove that you know what you’re doing and not just guessing.
19. You tell people what you’re going to do before you do it – If you tell people what you’re going to do before doing it, then you have a benchmark to see whether you succeeded or failed. If you don’t, then it’s hard to hold you to account.
20. You have a clear role – By having a clear role in an organization, people know what your job is. When something needs to be done, the person whose role it is to fix the problem will be accountable for fixing it. Without clear roles in the organization, then we don’t know who’s accountable for fixing the problems.
21. You don’t hide anything – By showing the good and the bad, you can show people that you’re not hiding anything. It helps to win trust and respect.
22. You are honest with your team – Often, lowly-ranked team members are held accountable to their bosses. But it’s also very helpful for a boss to be held to account by their team member. If the boss is open and honest with the team, then they will win respect from the team who are more likely to follow you and trust you.
23. You act in good faith – For example, in a business sale, you need to reveal all the positives and negatives of the business. You could try to hide some debts or market risks, but at the end of the day, if you don’t act accountably, it may land you in some trouble.
24. You accept democracy – Democracy holds people accountable. If someone does a poor job, they can be held accountable to the people by being kicked out of office. For example, if a president does a bad job, they’re held accountable at the next election by being voted out.
25. You keep your promises – Accountable people keep their promises because they know that if they don’t, there will be consequences.
Accountability is a sign of maturity. People who understand this concept will go far in their careers—they will get a promotion and succeed in life.
To be accountable, you must be able to transparently reveal the pros and cons so people can judge you fairly. If you handle this well, then you can actually win more respect from the people around you because they trust that you’re not going to be pulling the wool over their eyes.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.