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  • Writer's pictureBrigitte Granger

What Does Accountability Mean, Really?

To Do List notebook on a desk with the words "what does accountability mean, really"

When you think about motivation and accountability as much as I do, sometimes it helps to take a step back and actually define what we're talking about: what does accountability mean?

In most definitions of accountability, I found some mention of responsibility, answerability, and blameworthiness. Talk about tough love! It sounds like a recipe for shame, huh? Maybe that's why it's often so difficult for us to hold ourselves (or others, for that matter) accountable. We're avoiding the potential for shame by dodging responsibility.


Interestingly, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines accountability as:

  1. the quality or state of being accountable

  2. especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions

I wasn't sure sure why MW says there's an "obligation or willingness to" before "accept responsibility." It sounds a bit passive, doesn't it? But really, shouldn't accountability be action-oriented? Simply, "taking responsibility" might suffice. But if we are willing and accepting of the our own actions (or inactions, as is often the case with goals), then maybe it's less scary. Open your arms and embrace responsibility. Bring it on!

I also looked up the definition of responsibility (well, technically I dug into "responsible"). Two definitions really stood out to me:

  1. liable to be called on to answer

  2. able to answer for one's conduct and obligations : TRUSTWORTHY

Two interesting points here: 1. "Answer" is used in both of these definitions and 2. Trustworthiness snuck in there! For both of these, I wondered "to whom"? To oneself? To your accountabilibuddy? And I hadn't considered that trust plays a role in responsibility, but it absolutely does. Being accountable allows people to trust that you'll deliver.


picture of a cup of tea and a quote of Moliere saying, "it is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable."

In plain language, I would say that being accountable is doing what you said you would do. Being true to your word. Following through on your commitments. Showing up.

Now, what happens if you DON'T do it?

Answering and accepting responsibility for the failure is certainly a first step. But is saying, "Oops, I messed up. My bad!" enough?

How many times have you failed to reach a goal you set out for, missed it, and then set the same goal—and failed again?

Truth be told, I've had the goal to publish this blog post for months! And each week, something more urgent got in the way. I acknowledged the failure by accepting responsibility, and feeling a touch of shame, but I didn't do anything differently the next week. Well guess what? The same failure happened again and again. Nothing changed, and I didn't reach my goal.

To hold myself accountable, there had to be a consequence. I recalled from behavioral economics that humans are loss averse—meaning that pain of losing is psychologically TWICE as powerful as the pleasure of gaining.

How can we use loss aversion to our advantage? Imagine the cost of not doing the thing.

Ideally, the cost should be something you care about. For me, each day that went by where I didn't publish this blog post meant Supporti's blog audience would miss out on (hopefully) helpful information. My company and brand could lose trust (remember "trust" in the definitions earlier?) and customers.

For me, staring this consequence in the face was the next step in holding myself accountable to my goal. Luckily, FOMO is a great motivator that I've written about before. Clearly, it had an effect if you are reading this right now.

Have the courage to feel the discomfort in the consequence of failing. It can be highly motivating. Better yet, define the consequence of not accomplishing a goal while you're setting the goal in the first place. Write it down and put it somewhere you'll see daily.


Accepting responsibility, and acknowledging the consequences are steps in the right direction. But being accountable for your past is as important as being accountable for your future actions. Don't dwell in shame. Take action.

To really, truly, own your failure, you need to turn it into "learned it." Do something differently the next time. Try your best to make it happen. Course-correct. Don't make the same mistake.

Now that's accountability.

Photograph with a sad-looking pug with the text "own your failures. Learn from them, move on, do better next time"

Want more strategies for how to hold yourself accountable, or how hold other people accountable? Be sure to check out the rest of Supporti's blog.

If you'd like someone to hold you accountable to your weekly goals, sign up for accountability coach messaging:

accountability coach messaging 30% Off


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