Dr. Henry Cloud tells an interesting story about someone he worked with that wanted to make a friend accountable for a much-needed improvement in health.

Cloud inquired about what the man had done. “Oh, I continually call and remind him that he needs to exercise more. I cajole him about getting to the gym or going for a run.”

“And how has the reminding and cajoling worked out?” Cloud asked. 

“It hasn’t worked at all,” the man reported.

Cloud went on to explain, “Maybe that’s because you really aren’t helping him be accountable. Instead of calling, why not show up with your running shoes and ask your friend to go for a jog?”

We often think we’re holding people accountable when we’re doing nothing more than requesting, pleading, begging and/or demanding performance. As the story illustrates, these approaches generally aren’t very successful. 

What if we took Cloud’s advice and “helped people be accountable” rather than just “holding them accountable?” What if we were active participants in their change and improvement? What would that look like?

It Isn’t About Doing

Helping people be accountable is more than identifying what they need to do; it is about clarifying what needs to be accomplished.

Clear outcomes can often be achieved several different ways. We tend to be too rigid about the means and completely miss the end. For instance, in the example above, the objective wasn’t running, it was fitness.

Structure your efforts around the end goal, and involve the person you’re working with in determining the “how.” Giving them an active role in creating the process will engage them and create a greater sense of ownership.

“What” Rarely Works Without “Why”

People aren’t motivated by a goal; they are motivated by the reasons for achieving a goal. If I can’t see a benefit to be gained or a negative consequence to be avoided, why would I exert any effort to change?

Motivation is primarily about hope of gain or avoidance of pain. To help another be accountable, unpack the consequences of a change or lack thereof. Find reasons that are compelling to them, not just to you.

Find the Barriers that Need to be Busted

If you are investing in another’s growth, you can help them by both identifying and then overcoming barriers. I’m not suggesting you do the work for them, but it can pay dividends if you do the work with them.

Sure, it takes a lot more effort to go for a jog than to simply recommending jogging, but the difference in effectiveness is dramatic.

Find out what’s keeping your employee or colleague from doing what needs to be done, and accomplishing the intended results. Once you know what he or she is up against, you can brainstorm solutions for overcoming those barriers.

Never Confuse An Explanation with an Excuse

Our best efforts can be short-circuited by misguided benevolence. Sometimes we get explanations for failed results that we confuse for excuses.

What’s the difference?

An explanation is a statement of fact about what happened.

 An excuse is a get out of jail free card.

Your son might punch his little brother. His excuse? Junior made him mad.
Even before you read this, you would have said, “That’s no excuse.”

 So why do we let people off the hook for explanations disguised as excuses?

A sales manager might have this conversation with an excuse-making rookie: “Yes, it is hard and you had a lot to do this week. That’s an explanation. But it doesn’t change the requirement to make more cold calls.”

Be a Sermon Seen

There is an old familiar poem that says, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day. I’d rather one would walk with me than merely show the way.”

When you go beyond simply holding others accountable and help them through the process, you become a sermon seen rather than a sermon merely heard.

When you help your son or daughter with their homework, not only does the homework get done, but also the child learns more in the process.

And when you help a colleague be accountable, you actively build into his or her success.

Mark Sanborn
About Mark Sanborn

Mark Sanborn, CSP, CPAE, is president of Sanborn & Associates, Inc., an idea studio dedicated to developing leaders in business and in life. Mark is an international bestselling author and noted expert on leadership, team building, customer service and change. Mark Sanborn graduated cum laude from The Ohio State University. In addition to his work as a business educator and author, Mark continues to be an active leadership practitioner. Most recently he served as the president of the National Speakers Association.

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