If accountability is fundamentally counterproductive, why does it sometimes work and what are we supposed to do instead? Well, first of all, accountability “works” in two situations. In the first situation, there is very little relationship between the two people, and providing some kind of “consequences” or “incentive” can sometimes cause the other person to regulate him or herself or to make effort. This is why employers try to motivate employees with financial incentives.
The second situation where accountability sometimes seems to work is in the area of rewards. Rewards can encourage certain kinds of behaviors, but there are subtle distinctions here. If a reward is a celebration of an accomplishment, it works well. In this case, the reward is actually created and delivered AFTER the accomplishment. But most of the time, a reward is held out as something to work toward. If the behavior doesn’t happen, the reward doesn’t happen. In this case, rewards are profoundly destructive. While they can temporarily increase the behavior, overall they cause a decrease in that behavior. The reason is, if a person makes an effort for an external reward, they come to believe that is why they are doing the thing in the first place. Then, if there is no reward, there is no reason to continue the behavior. Alfie Kohn’s wonderful book Punished by Rewards explains this so well.
On the other hand, if a person is doing something for some other reason, such as for building a sense of mastery, personal growth, a connection with his or her own deepest values, or relationship pleasure, then the benefit is a reflection of a valuing of his or her character. The motivation is internal, not external. This builds that internal system of motivation, which does not disappear with a lack of tangible benefit. This has the added advantage of providing a sense of self-regulation and mastery. This is what our parents meant when they said, “Clean your room. It will make you feel good about yourself.”