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Accountability: What It Really Is and Why It Matters

Last Updated: August 24, 2021

Keith Rose
Keith Rose

Keith Rose holds a Master of Divinity degree and BA in Sacred Music. Keith worked with the Covenant Eyes Member Care Team for 15 years. He has also served as a Bible teacher, pastoral assistant, and music director at his local church. He's now the editor of the Covenant Eyes blog and the author of Allied: Fighting Porn With Accountability, Faith, and Friends. He lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina with his wife Ruby and daughter Winslow.

Accountability is a critical component for growth and improvement. Everyone needs it! We’ll explore in more detail what accountability looks like and how it works to your advantage in different areas of life.

What Is Accountability?

Accountability is usually defined as a state of being accountable, or a willingness to make oneself accountable.¹

Psychologists Jennifer Lerner and Philip Tetlock put a finer point on it: “[A]ccountability refers to the implicit or explicit expectation that one may be called on to justify one’s beliefs, feelings, and actions to others.”²

From this definition, we can see that accountability includes at least three things.

  1. Giving an account. Ideally, there are reporting systems in place to ensure transparency and accuracy. (At Covenant Eyes, we provide Screen Accountability reports for people looking to quit porn).
  2. A standard for assessing that account. What is the person being held accountable for? How is it determined whether the accountable person has met expectations?
  3. A relationship where the account and assessment happen. Depending on the relationship, there may be consequences if expectations are not met.

You can find the dynamic of accountability almost everywhere—in business, in family, and in society generally. Many practitioners of accountability have noted that it’s most effective when it’s not just a state of being, but it’s an activity that is carried out regularly.

Put another way, the best accountability isn’t just something you have; it’s something you do.

First, a Little History

There’s a reason the word “accountability” is closely related to “accounting”: both are essential in the world of business and finance.

Some of the earliest writing samples in history are of accounting tables. Archeologists have uncovered ancient Sumerian and Egyptian accounting records that bear a resemblance to modern balance sheets. And just as modern accounting comes with accountability standards and auditing, the ancients took accuracy very seriously. Cooking your books in ancient times could result in the death penalty! ³

Likewise, accountability has deep roots in the sphere of politics. In society, things quickly go haywire if government officials aren’t held accountable.

Anthropologists have noted that in many monarchical civilizations, kings were held accountable for the peace and prosperity of their kingdom. So long as things went well, they had absolute power. Should the kingdom fall into hard times, the king would forfeit his life.4  Of course, in the age of modern democracy politicians can be held accountable through the voting booth.

Why Accountability Is Important

Business and politics are one end of the spectrum of accountability relationships. But these relationships appear closer to home as well. Although it’s often informal and unspoken, there’s accountability built into the expectations we have of our family, friends, and neighbors.

Researchers believe that these structures of accountability are critical:

“Accountability, then, might be thought of as the adhesive that binds social systems together. Without the capacity to call individual agents to answer for their actions, there is no basis for social order, for shared expectations, or indeed, for the maintenance of any type of social system.” 5

Accountability is not only important for society–it’s a critical component for individuals looking for positive change and personal growth. It’s not something we can do for a short period and be done with, it’s something we need for life.

  • One study found that having an accountability partner can make you 95% more likely to accomplish your goal. 6
  • Gallup Business found that accountability is a key component in employee engagement. Businesses with highly engaged—and highly accountable—employees reported up to 17% higher productivity, 21% higher profits, 10% higher customer satisfaction, and 59% lower turnover rates for employees. 7
  • One study suggests that accountability can even help people treat one another more fairly. 8

4 Types of Accountability

Lerner and Tetlock state, “There are as many distinct types of accountability as there are distinct relationships among people and between people and the organizations that give structure and meaning to their social world.” 9

For our purposes, we’re going to highlight four different types of accountability.

1. Personal/Self-Accountability

Personal accountability, or self-accountability, simply means that you hold yourself to a particular standard and monitor your progress. An example of this would be a calorie-counting app on your phone that you alone can access.

Self-accountability means that you’re taking responsibility for your attitudes and actions. You’re establishing certain metrics for success and keeping track of your progress. The simple step of self-reporting can be a huge source of motivation.

Self-accountability is the easiest form of accountability to implement, and it’s a critical step to making any kind of behavior change.

However, if self-accountability is the only kind of accountability that’s implemented, it requires a high level of internal motivation and self-discipline. For those looking to change deeply entrenched behaviors, self-accountability is usually not enough.

2. Authority and Consequence-Based Accountability

A second kind of accountability is based on authority and consequences. In this category, we’re including any accountability relationship where there is outside authority to enforce punishment for failing to meet standards. This could be legal accountability, but it could also be the accountability enforced by a boss or a parent.

Authority and consequence-based accountability is not always harsh—it’s most effective in its milder forms.

For example, accountability is crucial in the workplace to improve performance and measure progress toward goals. This means more than just firing low performers. Successful managers have long recognized that simply firing employees who fail to meet expectations can be an expensive and growth-stifling way to do business.

In their study of accountability, Lerner and Tetlock noted that people faced with complex decisions tended to do worse with consequence-based accountability than without it. However, they found it is very effective for ensuring that people follow established processes and known guidelines.

The best systems of authority and consequence-based accountability are designed to motivate (and complement) personal accountability.

For child-parent accountability relationships, the consequences may be related to the level of independence the child is allowed. Researchers now recognize the importance of this kind of accountability in child development.7 A healthy system of authority and consequence-based accountability can help a child develop strong personal accountability.

Ideally, authority and consequence-based accountability is always paired with self-accountability. Nonetheless, for many people—particularly those struggling with addictions or destructive behaviors—the threat of consequence is insufficient to bring about lasting change.

In some cases, authority and consequence-based accountability simply motivate deception and secrecy. This is why a third kind of accountability relationship is so important.

3. Accountability Partners (Peer Accountability)

One of the most powerful ways accountability can be used is in the context of peer relationships.

Accountability partners are people who come alongside you to help you change. They don’t wield the threat of consequences unless they are agreed upon mutually by both sides. At Covenant Eyes, we like to call them “allies,” because they are the people who join you in the fight against destructive behaviors.

These relationships are especially effective in situations where personal accountability, and authority and consequence-based accountability have already failed to bring about lasting change.

See “Accountability Partners: How to Leverage Them for Growth

4. Accountability Groups

An accountability group is a gathering of like-minded people who hold one another accountable. The idea is similar to partners, in that groups are typically peer-based accountability relationships. However, a group meeting, as opposed to one-on-one, creates a very different dynamic.

12-step programs have long recognized the power of group accountability for overcoming addictions and destructive behaviors.

See “Accountability Groups: How They Succeed, Fail & Simple Steps to Start

How to Create a Culture of Accountability and Trust

We’ve seen diverse and critical roles that accountability can play. We’ve also seen the huge potential for benefit when individuals are seeking out accountability for themselves.

So how do you intentionally foster a culture of accountability? If you browse the business section at Barnes and Noble, you’ll find dozens of books that address this. But it boils down to one simple thing: trust.

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, leadership guru Patrick Lencioni sees a lack of trust at the root of many organizational problems.

Without trust, people are afraid to be honest. People are motivated to avoid dealing with or to cover up problems. Without trust, people are afraid to seek accountability.

But how do you build trust?

As a Leader

If you’re a leader in business, a church, or any other organization, you have an incredible opportunity to gain the trust of your people and develop a culture of accountability around you.

  1. Start taking on voluntary accountability for yourself. When a leader makes themself accountable, it sets a precedent for everyone else in subordinate roles. People are more likely to trust a leader who holds themself to the same—or a higher—standard as everyone else.
  2. Be vulnerable. As a leader, it’s not enough to model accountability if you always seem to meet and surpass standards. You need to model what it looks like to be accountable for your weaknesses. When your team sees you doing this, they will be able to trust the process of accountability for themselves.
  3. Set clear expectations and standards. There can be no trust where no one knows what they’re being held accountable to. As noted in the studies referenced earlier, accountability is more effective when applied to processes than results, so it’s important to keep this in mind when establishing standards.
  4. Make sure people know it’s OK to make mistakes. As psychologists have found, simply holding people accountable for their mistakes is ineffective or even counter-productive. Rather, effective accountability is an ongoing process of feedback. It should include positive reinforcement as well as constructive criticism. Make accountability about a trajectory of growth, not the success or failure of individual projects. A team that can trust each other with their mistakes is a team that can move forward!
  5. Ensure clear and accurate reporting processes are in place. Good reporting ensures transparency and keeps everyone honest. Of course, honesty is an indispensable corollary of trust. For example, at Covenant Eyes we provide Screen Accountability reports to detect pornographic content on computers and mobile devices.

In Other Relationships

You may not be the boss of an organization, but the same principles apply to creating accountability in other relationships. Colleagues, friends, family—all these relationships can be enriched by developing accountability.

  1. It starts with you. If you want accountability in your life to make a positive change—like starting to exercise or quitting porn—you have to own the change. We said earlier that personal accountability is an essential first step. In one sense, it just means taking responsibility for yourself.
  2. Take a risk and initiate vulnerability. At Covenant Eyes, one of the most common objections we hear to accountability from people who want to quit porn is, “There’s nobody I can trust with this.” But initiating accountability means taking a risk and trusting someone with your weakness. Some areas of accountability—like quitting porn—are more sensitive than others. You want to carefully choose who you ask for help with this. However, we believe the payoff is not only worth the risk, it’s a necessary risk to accomplish your goals!
  3. Find like-minded people. For a leader creating accountability, they need to establish clear expectations. In other relationships, it’s best to find like-minded people who can share your goals and expectations. When you find a like-minded person, you can hold each other accountable to the standards you both aspire to.
  4. Commit to learning and growing. The point of accountability isn’t a pass/fail standard of success—it’s about consistent progress.  When accountability turns into a competition or just a recap of successes and failures, it usually goes sour. It’s about improvement rather than perfection.
  5. Keep yourself honest. Set up a transparent system to track and report your progress. Without this, you’ll be tempted to fudge when things don’t go well, or lose sight of your success when they do.

Remember, accountability relationships are not a one-time solution to guarantee success. Rather, they are about bringing transparency and honesty to areas of your life where you struggle. When you can find people you can trust with your greatest weaknesses, this means they know you as you truly are and want to help you grow.

¹ https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/accountability
² https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/lernerlab/files/lerner_tetlock_1999.pdf
³ https://www.investopedia.com/articles/financialcareers/09/ancient-accounting.asp
4 James Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1890.
5 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/248126011_Toward_a_Theory_of_Accountability_in_Organizations_and_Human_Resources_Management
6 https://www.afcpe.org/news-and-publications/the-standard/2018-3/the-power-of-accountability/
7 https://www.gallup.com/workplace/236366/right-culture-not-employee-satisfaction.aspx
8 https://doi.org/10.2307/3033683
9 https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/lernerlab/files/lerner_tetlock_1999.pdf