Accountability Distance – What Is It, And Why It Is Important

We all have a friend who says one thing and then, in a matter of hours, he’ll say something completely different. Or maybe not a friend, but a close relative, a colleague at work, anyway, someone who is constantly breaking our accountability boundaries, driving us nuts, forcing us to abruptly change direction or to rethink projects entirely.

I know you’ve been there more than once. You put together some plans, sketch a course of action and then, bam, this person changes their intentions completely, without letting you know in advance.

Accountability is a very important thing. And knowing how to deal with persons who have low accountability thresholds is a very underrated skill.

What follows is a short, and, hopefully, simple approach to help you lower the inherent frustration of low accountability thresholds.

Minimum and Maximum Accountability Distance

“Accountability Distance” is just a term I coined for “how much should I believe this person on a daily basis and how much should I act upon what I believe”. It’s a relatively simple concept, something that you’ve been probably doing intuitively since you learned what trust is. More or less unconsciously, you know how much trust you put into a person and if you should really follow through if there’s some common action coming up.

But seeing things in terms of “accountability distance” instead of just plain trust, has a few advantages.

Before trying to see which they are, let’s have a closer look at these distances.

Minimum and Maximum Accountability Distance

Minimum Accountability Distance means “how much risk am I comfortable to take in my interaction with this person, by believing everything I’m told?“. In other words, I know this person has problems with accountability, but I’m ok with that, as long as the rest of the interaction is ok.

For example, the minimum accountability distance between you and your five year old kid is “I’m ok with whatever he / she says, because I know he / she is not capable yet of too much discernment”. So I’m willing to believe everything, specifically because I know it is not accurate. If my kid says “I’m going to fly on the sky with the dragons”, my minimum accountability distance will be zero, because I believe he / she believes that (but I also know it will never happen).

But the minimum accountability distance from a colleague at work who I know for being constantly inaccurate in his / her words, would probably be a 5. Meaning “I know this has a big chance to be inaccurate and I’m not going to believe more than half. Maybe half it’s true, I don’t know.”

Minimum Accountability Distance is a health check. On us. It allows us to avoid engaging in harmful activities with unreliable people.

On the other end of the scale, Maximum Accountability Distance is “how much harm am I prepared to generate, by not interacting with this person, because I don’t trust him / her?“.

For instance, if a person asks for your help, and you are at a 5 Minimum Accountability Distance (meaning you believe only half), how much harm are you prepared to let happen to that person by not helping him / her? On the same scale of zero to ten, the Maximum Accountability Distance might be a 5 too. Meaning you are prepared to do something, but not all. Maybe half.

A Maximum Accountability Distance of zero means we simply don’t care about the truth anymore, and we’re willing to do anything the other person asks from us. It’s the pathology of the “good girl / good guy”. It’s the fusional relationship in which you simply can’t let go, by fear of not hurting the other person, even if you hurt more. In this case, a small distance lowers the harm (at the expense of generating more harm to yourself).

A Maximum Accountability Distance of ten means we don’t do anything to help anyone, focusing only on us. The narcissistic way, in which no matter how much we believe or not what the other person tells us, we’re not going to do anything, ever, because “I’m the only one that really matter”. In this case, a big distance increases the harm done to other people, by supporting only your own needs.

Maximum Accountability Distance controls the toxicity we can generate for other people by not holding them accountable.

Now that we have some basic definitions, let’s see how we can lower our frustration when plans change, actions are derailed and the world seems to collapse every other day because, well, people on whom we relied are unreliable.

Assess Both Sides Of The Scale

Try doing this exercise for a week: every day, write down the minimum and maximum accountability distance for 3 persons in your life. Ideally, they should play different roles: some family, some friends, some colleagues at work. Write down how much risk you’d take by believing them 100% and how much harm are you willing to happen to them by refraining from any interaction.

As you do this, you’ll notice that distances are not consistent. Some persons have the same Minimum Accountability Distance, but they may have different Maximum Accountability Distance (and vice versa).

In other words, you may have the same risk tolerance for some persons, but ready to allow different toxicity for each. Some persons you trust the same, but for some you are willing to do more. You may have the same level of trust in your close circle of friends, but there will be always one friend for whom you’ll do more.

If you look at things from this perspective, something will start to change. You will have a better understanding of the dynamics between you and the other person, and you will adjust your levels of acceptance.

The Distances For The Same Person Are Constantly Changing

If you keep doing the exercise above, you will soon notice something else: both distances are slightly changing for the same person. As time goes by, your level of trust varies, you tend to believe a person more or less, based on your continuous interaction. Similarly, a person may become more important to you, and you are willing to do more for that person, no matter how accountable that person is in that moment (think about kids, or parents, or close ones going through rough situations).

We’re all going through ups and downs. We may have trouble at work, or some health problems, or various emotional responses (falling in or out of love, breaking up or getting together, etc). As people go through this, their accountability levels varies a lot. They may want to keep the same level of accountability, but given the complete unpredictability of our life, they simply can’t do that.

So, be gentle, aware and ready to adjust.

It’s Never A Done Deal

Now that you have in place this approach, try keeping in mind that change is the only constant in the universe.

And it applies not only to persons, but to situations and contexts too.

Just because something is plausible, it doesn’t mean it will happen, for sure. Just because you planned everything in detail, it doesn’t mean everything will go well.

As a matter of fact, the chances that something will go exactly as planned are incredibly small, if we really think at our condition here on Earth.

Our reality is on such a fragile balance, that the mere fact that we can safely have our next breath is a miracle in, and by itself.

So try to chill out a bit.

Image by Linus Schütz from Pixabay

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