You want to be seen as a good team player: trustworthy, committed, and accountable. But what if you find yourself not being able to meet your commitments? What might be going on? How can you behave in ways more aligned to your own vision of who you want to be?
Notice where you’re dropping the ball
First you need to identify where you’re having significant problems. Ask others to help you with this. You might see logging into work at 8:10 instead of 8:00 as insignificant, but it might be the top accountability issue your manager identifies. Or you might be worried that you’re holding up an entire project, but by checking in with others you discover that the team is more concerned with how long it takes you to reply to their emails. Get clear on where you want to be more accountable.
You might identify a few behaviors or routines that aren’t showing you at your best. Just take on one or two closely related behavioral issues so you aren’t overwhelmed. These should be behaviors you know you can change and you know are a problem. An example might be meeting agreed-upon deadlines. Or you find yourself making a lot of excuses and trying to fix blame elsewhere. Where do you want to improve?
Review possible contributing factors
No consequences. Some people need to have another person checking up on them until they build the habit they want. You can ask someone to help you set midpoint deadlines and check that you reach them. You might need to know that there’s a consequence to inaction, and choose a consequence that matters to you. The consequence can be self-administered like no second cup of coffee until you respond to this morning’s calls. Or it could be knowing you’re letting down a friend if you don’t meet them for a working session. The consequence simply has to matter to you.
I once worked with a team that could never get a publication out on time until we agreed that if we met our goal, we’d all get a day off work. No one wanted to be the one person who kept others from a vacation day. We got the publication printed by the deadline and we all celebrated.
Look to see if you’re actually being rewarded in some way for inaction. Does missing a deadline mean that you’ll be given extra time or fewer responsibilities? Does missing a meeting mean you get to do something more interesting with that time? Is the problem really your lack of accountability or is it a problem with meeting management or team culture—a problem you’ll need to solve together with others?
Unwilling to confront problems directly. Are you opposing a team decision or thwarting another’s plans without admitting that this is your goal? Are you acting out of resentment or a desire to retaliate or frustrate? If you’re feeling unduly controlled, deceived, or unfairly treated, and you haven’t directly confronted these conflicts, you might be acting passive-aggressively.
Are you avoiding conflict? Do you feel powerless to express your anger, frustration, or hurt directly? The real issue could be the group culture or leadership, and you’re expressing yourself in less than productive ways. Before you’ll see any change in your behavior you’ll need to address the conflict causing it.
Promising too much. Do you have a hard time saying “no”? You might need someone to coach you through this issue. I know of someone who has three email templates he crafted with a friend that each say “no” in a different style. Having priorities you can use to justify your negative response to yourself and to others can help.
Perhaps you’re also delivering too much. Checking in more frequently with those who ask for things might prevent you from doing more than they really need. Maybe you’re seeking perfection when the person asking just wants adequacy.
Ask questions of those who make requests. Make sure they and you know exactly what you have committed to. Visualize everything involved in the request and in your fulfilling it. Are you willing and prepared to take on everything involved? Can some tasks go to others? Are you the best person to ask? Sometimes this type of review will make it easier to say yes to what you can and to say no to what you should.
Unclear or conflicting expectations. Do you have a clear understanding of what you’re accountable for? Does it match what your manager and team members think is your job? If you’re not certain, this can make it easier for you to delay, or pass blame, or engage in other nonproductive behaviors. Or it can cause you to freeze up, wondering if you’re stepping on someone’s toes or duplicating efforts. Ask for clarity and alignment.
Fear of failure. Maybe you’re not even starting on a project because you’re afraid of screwing it up. It will probably feel terrible, but look at the consequences of doing nothing. Which is the greater short-term and long-term risk?
The task really sucks. There’s no avoiding that we all have to do things we don’t enjoy, but there are different ways of looking at those tasks. Can you break the task into smaller bits and reward yourself for each achievement? Can you do the tasks with another person? Would doing the job at a different time or different location make it more enjoyable?
You can try if-then planning. (If it’s 11 a.m., I will stop what I’m doing and work on this task until lunch, which I will take at 1 p.m.) If you have a specific plan, you’re more likely to follow it.
Stress. The side effects of stress can show up in many ways and might be contributing to your accountability problems. If you need to directly confront a person, bring up a difficult topic with the team, or say no to a persuasive person, you’ll naturally feel some stress. So plan for it and how you’ll address it.
Make sure your own basic needs are being met. Slow down and notice your surroundings. Water your plants. Take a walk. Meditate. Breathe. Then return to your work.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try reframing how you look at events. Is there only one way to look at the issue? Are you the only one who can respond to it? Is this really a priority? Is it OK not to have a solution yet?
Entitlement. Perhaps you feel that your title means that it is OK to be late to a meeting or that it reinforces your status when meetings don’t start until you arrive. Perhaps you’re just used to people agreeing with you or giving you a free pass on poor behavior. Or maybe the rules of this group’s culture don’t grant you the same status as a past group’s rules. Are you holding yourself to the same standards of accountability as you are holding others?
Disorganization or Attention Deficit Disorder. Maybe your problem is an inability to sustain focus on the task at hand. Maybe you’re easily distracted. You may need to make changes to your office to help with your concentration. Maybe you’re just disorganized and need to commit some time to taking back control over your space and your time. Or perhaps you need to get a psychological assessment and related support.
Ask for help
Whatever is causing your lack of accountability, you can make a change. A supportive colleague, coach, mentor, or manager can be enlisted for feedback on your progress. You’ll be more successful at making any sort of behavioral change if you enlist the support of others. If self-doubt, past experiences, or excessive worry begin to cripple your efforts, others you trust can help you overcome and focus on the change you’ve committed to. These helpers will want to see you succeed.
Make the commitment
Enlisting the help of others will show your commitment to yourself and to others. You might have the issue on your performance review, or schedule a check-in with a 360-degree review or team assessment. Making the commitment as a team to hold yourselves and each other accountable for appropriate behaviors and for reaching individual and team goals can go a long way toward creating a culture of accountability.