Research Paper By Francesco Restifo
(Life Coach, ITALY)
Coaching is a supporting profession that deals with change, action, forward movement, transformation, all functional to the client’s goals and desires. It is our common experience as human beings that in today’s society change is a daily part of our lives, and so is the need to change ourselves to adapt to our mutating surroundings. Adaptation is one of the key features of our species, one that has guaranteed our survival until this day.
So is accountability: it is an effective boost factor for change. In this research paper I am going to explore the relationship between the role accountability has played throughout our evolution as a species, and the role and potential it has in coaching.
What is accountability in the first place? According to the Cambridge Dictionary:
Accountability is the fact of being responsible for what you do and able to give a satisfactory reason for it or the degree to which this happens.
The meaning of the word is intertwined with responsibility, although with an important differentiating factor. Being accountable means being responsible for someone FOR something. Thus the prominent semantic feature is answering to authority.
As a side note, it is interesting to notice that this concept exists in all cultures. This is true independently from the existence or frequency of the word “accountability”, which does in fact not exist in many languages. Even in English, it is a rather infrequent word compared to “responsibility”. This testifies how deeply wired this behavior is in us as a species: it is something we universally share, despite whether a single culture articulates it precisely or not.
Where does it come from?
During the majority of our history as social beings, we have lived in tribes and villages; these small groups survived also because these small social structures kept people accountable.
The Cambridge Dictionary helps us once more with another definition to understand this:
Responsible altruism is the expectation that a favor given today would be returned in the future.
In other words, giving favors to one another would make it more likely to receive other favors in the future. Also, individuals honoring this principle, returning favors, and contributing to the community gained respect, status, and social recognition. This meant having a better chance of survival and reproduction. The smaller and tightly linked the social group was small, the higher the chances of a good gesture to be reciprocated – thus, those of survival.
In other words, accountability has been functional to our own survival for millennia. For thousands of years, we have willingly been keen on doing something today that may ensure us reciprocal altruism. This pattern has been ingrained into our brains until this day.
Moreover, accountability still has consequences on our response to challenges even today. We all can relate to the fact that accountability triggers automatic mechanisms that produce tangible consequences in our behavior. We think harder about an issue, become more alert, pay more attention, tend to develop more complex strategies, justify our choices more elaborately. This is part of the reason why I believe in the fundamental power of accountability in coaching.
Applications to coaching
Today we live in a much wider, more individualistic society, where this social factor has faded. As our groups and tribes have become huge, we have many more ways to escape the authorities which we should be responsible for, that were once much closer to us. We also have easy shortcuts to compensate for the lack of social recognition that virtuous behaviors generated (at least apparently): for instance, we have the power to choose which parts of our life we want to project to the outside world (eg. through social media).
This fading of accountability structures in society and my experience of it being extremely effective and powerful are the reasons for basing my coaching model around accountability. In the model, I propose to use accountability from the beginning, way before developing an action plan.
I suggest that we, as coaches, work to encourage clients recreating that missing community of accountability peers, as a key factor to successfully pursue whatever change may be pursued.
The two flavors of accountability
Procedural accountability focuses on how a goal was reached and the quality of the individual steps; it is not concerned about the quality of the outcome. In practical terms, individuals are usually asked to justify their strategies and motivate their decisions.
Outcome accountability focuses on the outcome and its quality instead, regardless of the path taken to achieve it. If the result only is what matters, developing healthy strategies for success (eg. collaboration) is not valued. As humans, we are naturally inclined to focus on outcomes, it is an effective cognitive bias: it is the most tangible of the two, the lasting evidence of success or failure, and the basis for judgment of the authority. However, just focusing on outcomes goes into the direction of competition and, in the case of social groups, away from mediation and compromise.
Applications in coaching
It should be stressed that both kinds of accountability have their positive and negative sides. Take sports for instance: it is the realm of competition, where results do matter. Of course, the process is equally important: certain standards are enforced by rules and penalties. If applied in athletes’ training, results are what matters, however, success has to be built long term by an appropriate process (eg. regular training, disciplined diet, etc).
Instead of choosing one or the other, a healthy approach lies in being conscious of the existence and importance of the two kinds of accountability and finding just the right balance between them.
Being aware of our human tendency towards outcomes, coaches should empower and support clients offering them both perspectives of accountability, to ensure a healthy and functional transformation journey. Then, of course, the choice of what accountability structures should target is entirely up to each client.
As an example, process accountability could be set up on the smaller, intermediate goals (eg. session goals, quick wins) to generate gratification and fuel motivation; while process accountability could be aimed at the value of the bigger journey, focusing on recognition of successes and learnings made along the way.
Accountability and consequences
There is another wiring in our brains that is both important for the subject.
Psychologically, we are inclined to condemn “free-riders”, i.e. those who benefit from the altruism of others without reciprocating at the appropriate time.
This is not (only or primarily) linked to an idea of justice or injustice. Holding commitments has been a fundamental contributing factor to the survival and thriving of the entire community. Thus, there were unpleasant consequences for individuals who did not honor their commitments to others, or took advantage of others, to discourage this behavior.
Applications in coaching
An additional consequence of what is described above is that accountability is more effective when not only the consequences of succeeding but also those of failing, are known. It is everyone’s experience that we may be motivated by reaching a pleasant state, or by avoiding a different, unpleasant one.
This is why being aware of (I want to stress being aware of, which is different from being fearful of) the consequences of inaction is equally important as a motivating factor. We may note how different individuals formulate their motivations differently (eg. training to complete a marathon vs. training to avoid quitting before the finish line).
The coach should support the client during this delicate exploration, which as we know will be more effective if done during moments of high energy when the client feels empowered and already motivated.
Accountability and failure
The described mechanism of fearing the consequences of not keeping our social obligation to reciprocate favors is also valid for our failures. In fact, failure is still a difficult thing to accept both as individuals and in society.
“People will accept and embrace accountability if they can take decisions and risks without being blamed for making a mistake. Fail fast is a type of culture that needs to be in place if you want to leverage accountability.”
This tells us two things. First, it proposes a healthier attitude towards the possibility of failing; an attitude of awareness and learning. Second, it tells us that the community around us must also be supportive and compassionate: “fail fast” is a culture, i.e. a collective attitude, not just one person’s one.
Applications in coaching
Clients cannot immediately control or change the culture of the communities they live in, however, they have the power to work on their goals: ultimately, the whole idea of success is relative to the goal that one wants to reach.
The fear of failing makes us naturally shy away from difficult goals. This is why a divide-and-conquer approach is effective in so many fields, including coaching: it allows us to break away from resistance and feel the positive effects of smaller but constant successes along the way. These are the quick wins, all of those session goals which are within reach (SMART goals).
One more definition: Ownership
Another key concept linked to accountability is ownership. The people at the Cambridge Dictionary come to our help once more:
Ownership is the fact of taking responsibility for an idea or problem.
Responsibility is involved here, too. This time we need to use our imagination to further explore this concept.
Let us try to imagine a situation where two or more people are liable for a common activity. This scenario is not that effective in terms of reciprocal altruism. Individuals might start debating about who should be taking credit for eventual success, or blaming each other in case of a loss. It is easily understood that factions and internal conflict do not increase the chances of survival.
Ownership, on the contrary, is way healthier for the group. It avoids wasting energy and indulging in lengthy debates, in favor of transparent distribution of responsibilities which can be traced back, praised in case of a positive outcome, and judged in the opposite case.
One of the ideas behind responsible altruism is that the thriving of the group or tribe grants better chances of survival to each individual. At the same time, an individual contributing to the success of the group is eligible for recognition and praise.
Applications to coaching
In today’s world, the idea of a tribe that is essential to our survival is much more diluted, and although society plays a key role in our wellbeings, luckily our physical survival is not in constant danger anymore.
We have seen how accountability and ownership are interlinked. In coaching, the authority implied by accountability may be external, but not exclusively. It may very well coincide with the person being accountable itself. In fact, as coaches, we do encourage clients to be accountable to themselves to create an effective action plan.
Now, going back to the definition of accountability and comparing it with ownership, we may notice that the latter can be rephrased as follows:
Ownership is taking responsibility for something.
Which can be further reduced to:
Ownership is being responsible TO ourselves FOR something.
In other words, ownership is nothing but being accountable to ourselves. In my coaching model, I explore how ownership can boost the client forward on the path towards reaching the sought goal or change.
The dark side of accountability, Carlo Alberto Hung, 2019
Helen Abadzi, Accountability and its educational implications: culture, linguistics, and psychological research, UNESCO, 2017