Accountability is a funny thing. We certainly expect it of others. We theoretically value it in ourselves. At the same time, however, we can go out of our way to create plausible deniability, establishing any number of defences, reasons and prospective excuses as to why something didn’t quite go the way that we wanted. Sometimes we do this deliberately. Other times we appear to do it seemingly unconsciously.
As a management consultant, and one that has spent the better part of a quarter century specializing in project management, this is something I see a great deal of. From both perspectives.
Particularly in a project environment, accountability is seen as important. Estimates are expected to be accurate, and numbers once uttered are seldom forgotten and infrequently revised. Schedules are expected to be adhered to rigorously. When someone commits to delivering something by a specific date, we expect that promise to be honoured. Statements of work, scope statements and deliverables become progressively more nuanced as—in the face of disappointment—we further qualify the results that we expect to see.
At the same time, most of us are more than a little guilty of qualifying our commitments when it comes to establishing expectations. We hedge our bets. Buffer our estimates. Pad out the schedule and build in extra days, just in case. Squeeze in a little extra contingency. We are often almost pathologically determined to create wiggle room. What happens when we get it, though? All too often, things slide. Sometimes just a little. But often by a lot. And the degree of slippage often depends upon just how closely someone is looking.
My own relationship to deadlines is decidedly complicated. Partly, that’s a product of my personality. I’m an optimist by nature, relentlessly curious, and interested in far too many things. I also like to be helpful, and hate to disappoint. In the early years of my career, this led to me to take on far more responsibility than was wise, reasonable or practical. They say that if you want something done, you should give it to a busy person; often, there was no one busier than me.
I would start new jobs, and—as you do—work hard to demonstrate my value and worth. Recognition for a job well done, as so often occurs, was rewarded in the form of more work. I would leap at taking on new and interesting challenges and responding to additional requests for help. Looked at through one lens, and I was being responsive, even if I wasn’t necessarily being responsible; I was replying to opportunities and inquiries with an enthusiastic “Yes!,” all in a desire to be accommodating. It was the rare challenge that I wouldn’t embrace.
At the same time, I would regularly miss deadlines (or at the very least extend them). Commitments for Friday at 5pm could reasonably be reinterpreted as really being due at 9am on Monday. Which would progressively become end of day Monday. Or Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Or sometimes all the way to the following Friday (which, if we’re honest, really meant the next Monday). The result became a routine failure to reliably deliver, even while I could reliably be expected to take on something else.
Attempts to manage workload and expectations led to a great deal of buffer, padding and contingency. Flexibility on any one assignment or commitment, however, did little to manage the cumulative impact of my entire workload. The net result was a very large number of commitments moving forward in incrementally tiny steps, but nothing quite making it all the way to the finish line.
I will admit that I’ve gotten much better at this in recent years, particularly in the context of customer commitments. Years of experience have taught me that I can estimate well. I am able to, for the most part, proactively manage my workload, and I have a realistic sense of what it will take to deliver. I still find myself with crunch periods where a number of commitments are due in close order, but that’s usually a consciously chosen reality more than it is the accidental byproduct of an insatiable curiosity.
That’s not to say that things don’t get missed. But these are usually personal projects and commitments, more than they are customer expectations. Which isn’t to say our personal projects aren’t important, because they are. They are what help us grow, develop and stay engaged. Last year, my personal undertakings included writing a book, co-hosting a monthly webinar series, putting out a theoretically weekly newsletter and maintaining more web sites than it is likely reasonable for any one person to own.
It’s here that a candid assessment of my performance starts to reveal some holes. The webinars happened on time, although not without some last minute slide development. The book was only about two weeks late in getting to the publisher, which in some circles counts as being early. With 52 weeks in the year, I managed to put out 38 newsletters. Which also means that I missed 14 weeks. Is that a problem? It depends on how you look at it. On the one hand, I have voluntarily chosen to undertake each activity, and for most of them I’m not making any direct revenue. Even the book has earned me no more than the cost of a nice dinner for two. So there were no direct consequences to be found in not following through. On the other hand, each of these represented public commitments and created visible expectations, so failing to meet them tends to get noticed, at least by some (you know who you are). And, having chosen to write this article in quite the way I have, I’m making my slips and failures a little more visible than they otherwise might have been the case. Most importantly, though, I noticed when I failed to meet a commitment. While that didn’t stop me, I still recognized and internally acknowledged every time that I failed to meet a target.
So why do it? And more importantly, why write about it? Follow along, because there is a method to my madness in writing this article. What I have found is that it is most often the personal commitments which we make to ourselves that we are most likely to let slide. And, while they are only commitments to us, we are the first to make up reasons, excuses and rationalizations for doing so. We are also the first to beat ourselves up and engage in self recrimination—none of which is particularly productive, helpful or useful in moving things forward, especially given that these are the things we theoretically care most about (if only because we promised ourselves that we would take them on).
There are some powerful forces at play here. Forces that we ignore at our peril. They influence and shape how we make the commitments that we make, as well as why we let them slide. A lot of them, if we are honest, are rooted in fear and anxiety. Letting them play out, though, only further undermines our view of ourselves and our perceived ability to be successful in the future.
Let’s take the public commitments I mentioned earlier. I’m certainly not the only person I know that has difficulties in saying no to opportunities. And while some of this might be interest in the assignment, the excitement of new opportunities or a restless desire to explore new subjects, some of it is also motivation that stems from fear. Fear of missing out. Fear of disappointing someone else. Fear that if we say ‘no’ to this request, we will miss the opportunity of saying ‘yes’ to a future request.
How we approach the work is also, often, fear based. Procrastination is an adaptive behaviour, and a very interesting one. While many claim that deadlines are a motivation and a source of creative inspiration—and, very occasionally, they can be—more often than not they are actually a form of cover. By starting late and ramping up pressure, we also give ourselves an out if the results don’t measure up. We are, in essence, creating the opportunity to fail; while we might have done a great job with more time, we did the best we could under the circumstances. The only problem being, we were the author of those circumstances. We set up the conditions so that if we succeed, we are a super hero, and if we fail we have built in plausible deniability.
That is also the inherent challenge associated with meeting public commitments and failing on private ones. By creating the opportunity for failure, and setting circumstances so that failure is if not assured then at least highly likely, we keep on creating excuses for the one audience that should matter the most: us. Rather than setting ourselves up to maximize the possibility for soaring success, we create a safe space for a crash landing. All too often, we wind up having to pick up the pieces at an accident scene of our own making.
There is a lovely quote, often mistakenly attributed to Nelson Mandela’s inaugural address, from the writer Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.”
All too often, we do play small. We do try to hide our light. And we do fear that we are inadequate. But we often hide this fear by setting ourselves up to fail, and giving ourselves a plausible reason not to be great, or to do great things. While we might value accountability, it is to ourselves that we are often the least accountable.
Changing this requires effort, willpower and a clear sense of our values, purpose and goals. That is, in part, the basis and the motivation behind the articles that have immediately preceded this one. But just having a sense of purpose is in actuality less than half the battle. The real effort is in showing up, doing the work, following through on our personal commitments and being willing to let our work be seen. And the real battleground is within ourselves. We need to create the conditions that allow ourselves to be successful, rather than creating the circumstances that allow-or at least permit—ourselves to fail.
How we do that is unquestionably personal. It depends upon our motives and on what motivates us. For me, part of the answer is found in actually making public commitments regarding my personal projects. It is also found in starting to build the discipline to do the things I care about. And it’s being honest—first and foremost to myself—about the work that I do, and about the circumstances of where it doesn’t measure up.
That’s not to say that deadlines won’t get missed, and commitments might compromised. But that needs to be a conscious choice, made eyes-wide-open, rather than a consequence of setting ourselves up for failure. This article, ironically, is being published a day later than it would normally be. There are good reasons for that, and I’m comfortable with the choices I made that led to this reality. But I also recognize that there are circumstances in the not-so-distant-past where the choices would have been more subconscious, and less a form of sober scheduling than self-sabotage. To the external observer, the results look the same. The difference is a product of the motives we have, how those drive the choices we make, and how we hold ourselves accountable to our toughest of critics: ourselves. Do we choose to make success possible, or do we choose to make failure palatable?