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Posted on January 17, 2018
Image of a man frustrated as he leans over his paper, with an open laptop to his right.
Another lesson we were taught in Kindergarten that seems to disappear once we reach adulthood is admitting to our mistakes. I could go on and on about the reasons why accountability has been replaced with denials and finger pointing, but the reasons really don’t matter. The truth is, we, as adults and business people, need to be accountable for our actions – both good and bad. As human beings, we are far from perfect. We make mistakes. We forget to send out an email or follow-up after a phone call. We misunderstand the focus of a project. We miss a deadline. We snap at a colleague. We space on a meeting. The reality is we all have experienced at least a few of these less than stellar moments. What separates us from the others is how we respond to our failures.

I understand it is hard to admit failure. No one relishes walking into his or her boss’s office to explain how they screwed up. But barring death, dismemberment, embezzlement, etc. I know most managers appreciate the honesty, and they don’t want to listen to endless excuses or watch you blame your peers or subordinates. They want to you to be accountable. But accountability doesn’t stop with an admission of guilt or an apology, it also involves finding a reasonable solution. How will you correct the situation or prevent it from happening again? This step requires you to step away from yourself and your pride and view the situation with some objectivity, so you can envision a meaningful solution.

So, what are the steps when the inevitable happens?

  1. Open your eyes and allow yourself to honestly see the situation
  2. Understand your role
  3. Accept that you have responsibility in the situation
  4. Think about the possible corrective measures
  5. Develop a plan to prevent the situation from occurring again
  6. Be honest with your boss about the situation, your role, apologize, and present your recommended solution

The one exception is an emergent situation – in such cases, it is important to notify your boss immediately, and then take the time to go through the steps of recognition, acceptance, and prevention.

Let’s think about this from another angle. I remember when I was little and I took the box of chocolates. They were my favorite and we only got them during the holidays. I hid and ate about half of them. When my mother noticed most of the chocolates were gone, she asked me about it. I lied, telling her I had no idea where they went. She let me sit with the lie, and in the first few moments, I felt a great sense of relief because I hadn’t been caught. However, those feelings were quickly replaced with a relentless wave of guilt. Accountability is the act of taking responsibility, and it will likely make you feel lousy in the first few moments, but those feelings will quickly be replaced with a sense of relief. If you alter the truth to cover for your mistake, or you point your finger at a colleague or subordinate and let them take the blame, especially when you have responsibility, over time, you will begin to feel lousy about yourself. Accountability is not just about taking responsibility, it is also about long term preservation of self, reputation, and dignity.


Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Clinical Professor
Department Head, Graduate Studies
Goodwin College
Drexel University
Posted in interpersonal-communications, leadership-management-skills