Each week, every kid in my daughter’s first grade class takes on a different “job.” The jobs include things like wiping down the tables, sweeping the floors, or ensuring the books are lined up to the edge of the shelves.
But there is one job that my daughter considers the holy grail of all the tasks: being the “checker.”
The checker does not have one assignment in particular. The checker’s role is to check off that everyone else has done their job properly so that the class can go to recess.
A few weeks ago, it was my daughter’s turn to assume the coveted role of “checker.” When she returned home from her first day on the job, I asked how it went.
“Oh, it was awesome!” she told me. “I got to check off that everyone did their job correctly. Three people did not do their job, so I had to help them.”
“Hm,” I responded, empathetically. “That must have been tough. How did you tell them? Were they upset with you?”
She seemed genuinely confused.
“Upset? Why would they be upset? I just…helped them! And then we went to recess.”
My seven-year-old’s genuine look of bewilderment at my misplaced empathy made me realize: I had assumed the awkwardness of her experience holding her classmates accountable. I assumed that it created upset and hurt feelings. I assumed that it was “tough.”
But it wasn’t tough at all. Not for these first graders who were unburdened by the baggage that so many of us bring to our interactions around accountability.
For them, it was just about getting the job done to arrive at an outcome that mattered very much to all of them — getting to recess! No need for discomfort when the checker came around to point out that Johnny hadn’t put away all of the pencils. They hadn’t learned to make it personal yet. It was all just…matter of fact. The goal of the checker is there to ensure they can go to recess on time — not to point out faults. The context of accountability for this elementary classroom is shared accomplishment.
But I can’t say the same for us adults. We’ve learned a lot about accountability over the years. And, by and large, many adults have learned to hate it. We’ve learned that accountability is about holding other people’s feet to the fire. Holding them to account.
Of course, that isn’t the way accountability has to be. In fact, my company teaches an entire course on accountability, with practices and structures to improve accountability across an organization.
But for many people, getting to what accountability is begins with an act of unlearning, with a return to that childlike, unburdened view of accountability. It begins with seeing what accountability isn’t.
Accountability isn’t crime and punishment. It isn’t about making people wrong. It isn’t personal. As our internal defense mechanisms crystallized over the years in an effort to address our insecurities, we learned to make accountability all of these things.
But as my daughter reminded me, it doesn’t have to be.
So, here’s my takeaway for you: The next time you’re about to enter a conversation around accountability, take a few minutes and reflect: What have I learned about accountability over the years? How am I bringing that into this interaction? How might that impact the way that I will show up?
For example, if you have come to understand accountability as inherently oppositional, you are all but certain to take on an antagonistic tone in the conversation. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes just the awareness of the pattern is enough to create a different tone in the conversation altogether.
Accountability is a sticky subject for a lot of people, often a source of tension and frustration. But with enough unlearning, we may just get back to that simple, matter-of-fact relationship with accountability and find ourselves wanting to be the “checker” once more.