As a coach working with businesspeople to make changes, grow, balance their lives and achieve goals, my foundational principle is accountability. I teach class series’; I coach one-on-one and in groups; and you can ask any of the people I work with about what is indispensable to reaching one’s goals and they will tell you – accountability. Accountability is ownership. It is a way of looking at challenges and asking, “what is my part in this?” “How can I change this?. It is a mindset, a place we come from, a place to start, and something that is underneath all of our actions. Because whether we act like it or not, whether recognize it or not, whether we admit it or not, we are in the end, accountable. Recognizing this offers true power. Once you know you have that power, you are truly on your way.
When we are accountable, we say things like “I see where my actions led to this result;” “I am going to take a look at what I did here and fix it for next time;” “I wonder what I can change to get what I am after in the future?”
We don’t beat ourselves up. We observe our behavior and if it doesn’t work, we change it. I describe accountability as running a spectrum from truly accountable (don’t worry; you can never achieve that fully – the goal is just move in that direction) to victimhood – victim to all of the circumstances around you. This sounds like “I have no power; I have no control; they made it happen; I had no choice.” When you are close to the victim end of the spectrum, you point at all the things which are, and which you believe to be, outside your control. (The truth is we have more control than we think we do.) At the victim end, we tell “stories” about the circumstances and use them as excuses.
Victim ——————————————————————————– Accountable
Recently, the question arose – if I miss a deadline and I tell you why that is, am I making an excuse? In other words, is it always true that my mentioning a circumstance outside myself is making an excuse and taking a non-accountable position?
Being accountable means realizing you have the power to make change. Imagine on March 1, your boss asks you to finish a project by March 15. On March 14, you are working away, on schedule and her boss comes in and asks you to do a different task right now. You do what the more senior manager asks and as a result, you do not get the March 15 project done on time. That is the truth. That is what happened. You aren’t making it up. So when your boss asks you where the project is on March 15, what is the accountable response? Better than thinking about the words to use might be to ask what it means to be accountable? The goal is to demonstrate your ownership – to her and to yourself. The goal is to assess what went wrong, learn from it and make changes in the future so both you and your boss know that this won’t happen again. “But wait,” you say, “I have no control over whether this happens again.” And here is where excuse vs. accountable comes in.
As a rule, you can assume you have little to no control over the circumstances. But (and this is why I say we have more control than we think we do) you have complete control over your response to the circumstances.
“We are responsible for actions performed in response to circumstances for which we are not responsible.” –Allan Massie
So when the more senior boss comes into your office on March 14 and asks you to do something right now, you have no control over that. What can you control? Saying yes or no; going to your boss and letting her know; working through dinner (or not). You also have control to learn from this and make changes in the future: to get started earlier on projects that are due in two weeks; to learn to manage your time better; to learn how to prioritize more effectively; to have a conversation with all your supervisors about the way that work is assigned and come to some better agreements. The possibilities truly are unlimited. But if you do not see that you have choices, all you can see is “I was going to be done on time when she came in on March 14 and I had no choice but to do her work and not get fired.”
So here is my answer to the question “is mentioning the circumstances making an excuse?”
It could be an excuse if you tell your boss:
• I had no choice but to do the work for her when she came in at the last minute;
• It’s not my fault;
• I would have been done on time;
• She is so unreasonable;
• I have too much to do;
• What do they want from me?
Or it could be accountable if you say to your boss:
• I chose to do what she asked;
• In the future, I’ll come to you in this circumstance and ask you what you want me to do;
• I will also start on long-range projects earlier so I am not working to the last minute and if things come up I can better handle them;
• Do you have suggestions for me handling this better next time?
In the end it is an excuse if you point to the circumstance and say you had no choice, you see no choice and you would have to do the same thing again in the future. It is not an excuse if you mention the circumstance in order to learn about your reaction to it in order to change your reaction in the future. Talking about circumstances in order to improve your future response to them is accountability.