Two Kinds of Accountability: Internal and External

Accountability is all the rage these days. Everywhere you turn, in both the public and the press, people are asking for greater accountability. The salacious tales of Bernie Madoff, John Edwards, and Anthony Weiner all bring cries for greater accountability in business and government. This is good. But what most people think of when they think of accountability is only one side of the coin, the weakest side. To solve the pressing problems we have today, both sides of the coin must be addressed.

There are two kinds of accountability, internal and external. Internal accountability is being accountable to oneself. It’s an individual’s personal commitment to be true to their values and to fulfill their promises. It comes from the inside out and creates a credibility that others trust and respect.

External accountability comes from the outside in, being accountable, not to oneself, but to others. It creates an environment that people feel compelled to follow, a set of social norms and standards.

Misunderstanding Accountability

The problem of accountability is that we think of it in terms of being external only. But there’s only so far environment can go in changing behavior. I live in a university town that’s extremely fitness conscious. On the weekend I see scores of people working out, running down the road, and biking on the bike path that goes by my house. This environment has an affect on me. I look at myself in the mirror and wish I was in better physical condition. But it does create the resolve I need to actually get in shape. That’s the role of internal accountability.

In the workplace I’ve discovered the limits of external accountability as well. After a person has been thoroughly trained in their job; if they need to be continually reminded of what to do and how to do it, there’s a problem. And it’s an internal problem not an external problem. This person doesn’t need any more information, they need inspiration. And inspiration is a choice. It’s a choice to embrace your company’s values and vision and from that commitment do your very best work.

The Role of External Accountability

What’s the role of external accountability? It’s role is to support the resolve of internal accountability. It creates the climate that allows people to fulfill their best intentions. External accountability cannot manufacture commitment, but it can fan its flame when the fire begins to wane. Intentions must be present in the first place or there’s no flame to fan; but when intentions are given positive reinforcement, the results are amazing. Anything less is coercion.

That’s why it’s essential for leaders to have both personal credibility and a strong corporate culture. Personal credibility gains followers who trust and respect you because you are true to your values and fulfill your promises. In short, inspiration from the inside out. Culture creates a context that reinforces that inspiration from the outside in. Not really two sides of the same coin, as I referred to earlier, but rather a case of the cart and the horse. Don’t get the one ahead of the other or you’ll never arrive at your desired destination.