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Accountability & Trust

January 30, 2009

When was the last time someone tried to hold you accountable for your actions?  Was it a good experience, for either of you?  Did you enjoy being held accountable, or did you try to make excuses (explanations)?  Did you pass the buck?  Or did you own up to your actions and take it with integrity?

When was the last time you tried to hold someone else accountable?  How did that work out for you?  Not so well, I can easily guess.  In fact, if your efforts were anything like mine have been, you probably lost a friend over it.

There are two things I’ve learned about accountability over the years.  First, your friend has to give you explicit permission for you to hold them accountable.  Second, when the stakes get high, you have to be willing to lose your friendship to live up to the first item.

I’ve tried to hold people accountable through the years.  Often there was an implied contract.  For instance, your friend comes to you and announces they are getting married to the person they’ve been dating for a few months and they want to know what you think.  What I’ve learned is that the question has nothing to do with my opinion.  In reality, what your friend is asking for your blessing. If you actually reveal that you think this is a bad idea, you can most likely be assured that you won’t be hanging out with the new bride and groom after the wedding.

Most people aren’t really asking us to step in an intervene on the stupid decisions they’re making

Most people aren’t really asking us to step in an intervene on the stupid decisions they’re making.  Most just want to know that we will continue being their friend after they make a stupid decision.  They want to know if you can let them be dumb and that you’ll still love them in the morning.

Occasionally you’ll have someone be explicit in their request to hold them accountable.  For instance, “Please don’t let me drink and drive tonight.”  However, if you haven’t fully negotiated this verbal contract, be prepared for your friend to rescind the request at 2:30am and 10 drinks later.  Before you agree to such a deal, make sure you’ve spelled our the specific requests, consequences to your actions, how they want you to act on their behalf, and how you will handle the friendship should conflict arise.  Believe me, just the act of asking these questions (the above is not an exhaustive list) and you’ll find out how serious the request was.

Are you willing to lose a friendship over the accountability contract?  Let’s say your friend asks you to help them with an addiction.  You’ve taken my advice in the previous paragraph and it is all spelled out.  A few months later your friend is headed down the path of returning to their addiction.  You see the signs and you begin to discuss this with your friend.

Most addicts will put their relationship with their addiction above all other relationships.  Most enablers will put their need to be liked above their friend’s need to be healed.  Here is where the tough choice comes in.  Do you have a greater need to be liked, or to help your friend?  Are you willing to allow your friend to bully you out of accountability, or are you going to hold them to the contract you agreed to?  Are you going to make them follow through on the promises they made?  How far are you willing to go in this direction?

Are you willing to read books on being an accountability partner?  Will you attend classes, groups, and seminars and unlearn enabling behaviors?  Will you preplan with your friend on how to handle ugly situations, and how best to reach them when they are spiraling the drain?  I’ve found just asking the other person what would work for them is the best way to discover what will work.  But, I’ve lost a few friends and I got a black eye from a girl after I removed her coil wire to keep her from driving drunk.


There is a third component to accountability that I haven’t mentioned; partnership.  This needs to be a partnership.  It works best if it is not one-sided.  It works best if you are willing to make yourself vulnerable to accountability also.

Several years ago I asked a friend if he’d be willing to be my accountability partner.  I was looking for someone with whom I could meet with on a regular basis to talk about my hopes, fears, and threats.  Many of these things I can discuss with my wife and many I can process through blogging, however, there are some things where I just need another guy to share with.  Sometimes there are threats to my growth and forward progress that my wife wouldn’t understand, or would feel threatened by.  Another guy would not only understand, but would handle objectively.

So, I went to my friend and asked him if he’d like to establish an accountability relationship.  We were on the same socio-economic-eduational plain.  We shared similar spiritual and religious values.  We both had families that we put before anything else.  And, to make things even better, we got along really well and enjoyed waxing eloquently over the great quandaries of life’s persistent problems.  So, I asked him if we could be accountability partners.

His response should have been a clue

His response should have been a clue, but I didn’t take the bait.  He said that we didn’t really need to hold each other accountable; we’re both good guys and we don’t do anything wrong; all we need is to share some thoughts now and then.  Unfortuantely, I took this as a yes.  In reality, it was a no.

Over the course of several months, as my friend and I got together, I discovered two things:  First, I was reluctant to open up and share; and Second, we began to meet less and less frequently.  I believe both of these issues are tied to trust, or the lack thereof.  Because my friend didn’t want to be held accountable, he never asked me the “tough questions.”  And because he never asked me the tough questions, I began to see that he didn’t want to address them.  Not only do I wonder if he didn’t want to be vulnerable in this arena, but I think maybe he didn’t want me to be too truthful myself.  And because we weren’t going deep, we were less and less motivated to make these regularly scheduled times together.

I’ve discovered in other friendships, if I’ve asked them to hold me accountable, but they haven’t reciprocated the offer, I get very reluctant to open up and reveal myself.  I have trouble being vulnerable and transparent as it is (I’m not unique, I’m just a guy), but when the relationship is lop-sided, that definitely works against any real accountability.  I’ve found the reverse to be true also.  If I don’t reciprocate a friend’s request to be held accountable, they get less and less eager to reveal their true heart to me.

Trust is a big part of this equation.  I have to have trust before I can give you something as valuable as my heart.  If I share with you something that is deep and probing from my soul, it will be interesting to see what you do with that.  Will you recoil in fear and horror; will you run and share it with your well-connected grapevine of gossip; or will you avert your eyes and change the subject?

Most of us test the water first.  We share little bits of information – factoids, not feelings – about our lives.  Then we wait to see if that information comes back to us through other people.  If we find that our confidence was not breached, we began to share a little more and a little more.  For us postmodern, 21st Century, American males, it takes us a long time to tunnel down to real feelings.  Ask a guy what he feels, and he’ll tell you what he thinks.  But given time and intentionality, and we can get to our feelings, our thoughts, our hopes, dreams, fears, and temptations.

As this is mutually shared, over time, a true, trusting accountability relationship can be built.

Recently I had a boss try to counsel me.  He said, “Let me take off my boss hat and let you just talk to me honestly.”  There is no way one can trust that someone has that good of firewall in their soul.  If you think you can trust that request, you’re probably the kind of guy who answers his wife honestly when she asks if a particular outfit makes her butt look fat.

I crave growth, I crave ideas, I crave forward momentum and change.  I know that accountability will help me achieve the hopes and dreams in my soul.  It is the dysfunctions that hold me back from becoming the man I was created to be.  To have a trusted friend (According to a recent USA Today Headline, 90% of American men do not have a trusted best friend) with whom I can talk about all the gory details in my heart, I know this would help me attain a better character and more integrity.

I recently mentioned to some friends about my desire for accountability relationships.  I made the comments, probably several times, more as thinking out loud and testing the water.  Unfortunately, they took my comments to imply permission to hold me accountable and have taken steps towards doing so.  What they don’t know is that this has done more harm than good.  First, there was no solid contract of accountability, so they have overstepped the trust we are still building.  And second, there isn’t a shared reciprocity.  I will never be able to trust another with the core of my soul, unless they can do likewise.

Like I said earlier, I strugle with dysfunctions, temptations, personality quirks, and downright abbarent behaviors.  Occasionally I get a clue about how I’ve overstepped a cultural norm, but sometimes it would be nice to have a trusted friend pull me aside and point out a blind spot, or two.  Not everyday mind you, but occasionally.

My wife appreciates it when I tell her she has spinach stuck in her teeth (no matter where we are or who is around).  But she has given me permission to do so.  However, when she tries to do the same with me, in public, in front of everyone, I don’t appreciate it and I’ve reminded her countless times that I’ve not given her permission to do likewise.  But, I have given her permission to point out unsafe driving conditions or cars that I may have missed when entering an intersection.  I always appreciate it when I don’t pull out in front of speeding cars.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is this; we can all benefit from accountability.  Accountability has to be permission-based and established with recipricol trust.  Without permission and without recipricol trust, there is no accountability.

  1. Lou permalink
    March 4, 2009 3:48 am

    Thank you for your thoughts and comments. I lead a small group of businessmen on a weekly basis. We have been meeting for over two years and have reached this point where we have begun to agree to be accountable to one another. Your “Trust Equation” is going to be a great tool to show how this works. It is my hope and prayer that I get it right with these guys so that they “get” how this works and I know that this will allow these men to move to the next level. God’s best to you as you continue your journey!!!


    • March 4, 2009 9:30 am

      I’m really glad this was helpful. You are at an interesting transition time with your group – kudos for surviving this long! And good job not getting to far out in front of yourselves. It is my hope that you can bump this up a notch and continue to grow as a group who values authenticity, transparency, and respect!


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