The Three Steps to Positive Personal Accountability

Written by Andrea Williams, MSU HR Organization & Professional Development

When many of us think of accountability, we associate it with negative connotations such as stress or even fear. We’re used to hearing about “accountability” as a disciplinary measure when something’s gone wrong. Because of this, many of us don’t understand what accountability actually entails, why it’s important, or where it starts.

The first step toward fostering positive, personal accountability, as well as a culture of accountability in the workplace, is to understand and redefine what true accountability means. Accountability doesn’t mean punishment. Rather, accountability is an empowering factor, not a consequence, and involves a willingness to accept responsibility for your own actions. In other words, making clear commitments that — in the eyes of yourself and others — have been kept.

Accountability vs. Responsibility

Although they’re sometimes used interchangeably, it’s important to make the distinction between accountability and responsibility. Having clear definitions of responsibilities in the workplace is essential but going a step further to be personally involved ensures better results. When you make the choice to go beyond your responsibilities with feelings of ownership, involvement, and engagement, you are then in a position of personal and positive accountability.

Accountability is a broader concept than responsibility — it’s something you do to yourself, not something that someone does to you. As such, accountability starts with you. No matter what your role at MSU, when you work toward personal accountability, you model the positive behaviors you want to see in your team and organization.

Create a Personal Accountability Framework

Accountability is not a one-time or occasional thing; it’s an everyday activity that applies to and benefits everyone. Take a simple and positive approach to establish ongoing personal accountability by following these three steps.

Step #1: Set SMART, HARD Goals

To begin, ask yourself the questions: What are my priorities? What am I passionate about? What do I want?

Establish a definite direction and clear, measurable goals that align with what’s important to you to keep motivated and achieve better follow-through. Ensure your goals are formulated to achieve results by using a combination of the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely) and HARD (Heartfelt, Animated, Required and Difficult) goal-setting frameworks described in this When SMART Meets HARD: Setting Goals that Matter article.

Step #2: Develop an Action Plan

Once you have established a SMART, HARD goal, develop an action plan to bring it to fruition.

  1. Identify limiting factors – It could be a shortage of time or resources, a lack of buy-in, or any other number of issues. Be realistic about any limitations and prepared with potential workarounds.
  2. Remove obstacles – Very few obstacles are insurmountable. Think first about the biggest obstacle you’ll likely face in reaching your goal. How can you overcome it?
  3. Divide your goal into subgoals – Utilize the SMART and HARD frameworks for your subgoals to give yourself the best chance of success.
  4. Plan actions for each subgoal – What are the specific, actionable steps you’ll take to reach each subgoal?

Step #3: Manage Priorities and Energy to Achieve Your Goals

It’s essential to recognize that time and energy are finite resources, and it benefits you to intentionally prioritize how you use both. When moving forward on your path to personal accountability, categorize the tasks that will help you complete your goals into three categories and assess the time and energy they require:

  1. Maintenance tasks – These are the routine tasks that must be done for your day to run smoothly (e.g., answering messages, maintaining your calendar). Avoid becoming overinvolved in these tasks or becoming distracted while doing them. Develop strategies to help. For example, schedule specific times during the day when you check and respond to your messages and have an effective system to keep information in order.
  2. People tasks – Whether it’s a meeting, interview, or social interaction with a colleague, these activities often require high emotional energy, so be mindful to pace yourself.
  3. Creative and analytical tasks – These can be anything from time spent developing a presentation to researching suppliers to analyzing data. This work typically requires significant time and energy, so ensure you plan out sufficient periods for these tasks during the days and timeframes that make the most sense for your work style and preferences.

Follow-through is a critical component of personal accountability. To avoid stalling out before your goals and commitments are realized, protect your time and prioritize activities that keep your physical, emotional, and mental energy reserves high.

Interested in Learning More?

Personal and team success are closely linked to positive accountability. When you take actionable steps to demonstrate personal accountability, it can generate a strong impact on not just performance and results, but also your personal and team satisfaction. Find additional resources around the topic of accountability, including short videos and courses, using MSU’s free online resource, elevateU.


Skillsoft Ireland Limited. Developing a Personal Accountability Framework. Retrieved February 10, 2021 from

Skousen, Tracy (2016, April 12). Responsibility vs. Accountability. Retrieved February 10, 2021 from

Tredgold, Gordon (2017, September 14). 7 Truths About Accountability that You Need to Know. Retrieved February 11, 2021 from

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