4 Steps to Becoming the Best Accountability Partner

Lately I have been involved in a lot of conversations about “holding others accountable”. The other person may a manager, a peer or a direct report. Often my conversation partner wants to talk about ‘the other person’. However, I bring the focus to my conversation partner, because in any relationship all we can control is ourselves. The question is “What role do I play to help ‘the other person’ be accountable?”. That’s where I started using the phrase accountability partner.


Accountability partner is a word that is already in use and is most often used in the context of support groups (such as AA). An accountability partner helps the other individual fulfill their obligations to the group (stay sober, in the example of AA). I think this is a reasonable model.

Before we go further, there may be a need to define accountability and responsibility. The best treatment I have seen of this comes from Dennis Hooper Building Future Leaders. For the purpose of this discussion, useful distinction might be that we are responsible forsomething and accountable to someone. Responsibility is assigned before the action; accountability after the action (usually, after the action should have been done). A person can be accountable without being responsible. For example, a CEO is accountable for the actions of all employees even if they were not responsible for the specific actions. We can delegate responsibility but not accountability. Even given these potential distinctions, if we use responsibility and accountability interchangeably, it doesn’t matter. We want to get things done!

How do we get things done? Using the above definitions we might say, how to do we help the responsible person be accountable? The answer is encapsulated in the role of an accountability partner.

  • Make sure the expectations are clear. What? How? When? Where? Who? The level of detail will vary depending on the person (experience, confidence, detail-orientation). Whatever the needs, lack of clarity of expectations is the most commonly blamed barrier, whether real or not.
  • Ensure the conditions are right for the person to be successful. Particularly as a manager, you must be sure that the responsible person is the right person for the task. Do they have the skills? Are they motivated by this task? Are there barriers out of their control that only you can alter (workload, co-manager, tools to get the job done)? Is 4 there knowledge you might add, a perspective that you have based on your access to higher-ups or on your experience?
  • Ask, “How can I help?”. You cannot and should not think of everything, so ask “what else”? –more than once. And mean it. If the task is important, then so is the person doing it.
  • Check on progress; provide milestones. Achieving accountability doesn’t just happen when the work is done. Accountability is achieved at every step along the way. One can be accountable and not successful. This is easier and faster to accept (and for the other person to admit) if everyone is aware that a best effort was given along the way. By checking on the way, you can provide support and coaching as it is needed. Coaching and support may look like clearer expectations, motivation or providing knowledge, for example.

No matter our relationship with the other person, if we know that someone is failing at a responsibility we are accountable to do what we can to help them fulfill that responsibility. We share accountability to and with everyone.

Jonathan Shaver