Why Accountability Can Lead to Reduced Performance, and Higher Stress Levels at Work

Accountability can be a great strategy for some people who like externally-imposed deadlines and constraints. But life rarely works in a way that we have someone or something that forces us to act on our personal goals and daily tasks. 

It’s not that accountability as a concept is totally flawed, but rather that for some people it misses the mark. This can happen for a few reasons. Here are two of them:

  1. Resistance to authority or externally imposed structures.

Have you ever had that experience that as soon as you have to do something, you then actively fight against it? That even if you enjoy the task, as soon as you tell yourself you have to work on it, it becomes this looming burden that you fight tooth and nail.

People who resist structure can actually set themselves up for failure – and way more pain, shame and strain by using typical accountability methods.

As more neurodivergent individuals, like myself, enter the workforce, there is an increased need to recognize the different motivation and processing needs of this population. A fundamental resistance to imposed structure or instruction is called “pathological demand avoidance”, though in the Neurodivergent community we have re-framed this term as “persistent desire for autonomy”. because it better reflects our desire to increase our engagement with tasks by working within parameters that we help set. This way our work makes more sense to us, and it supports the way our brains process information better. Ultimately, this makes us happier and more effective employees!

But even if you or your employee isn’t neurodivergent, sometimes stress, overwhelm, and burnout can cause the same increased desire for autonomy (and thus resistance to productivity).

2. The thing holding you accountable holds no meaning to you and thus seems arbitrary (and unmotivating)

You’ve read that “just putting it in your schedule” holds you accountable. But then who’s there to ensure you don’t just ignore your schedule? If you have a fundamental resistance to these impositions, a schedule would be counter-productive.

“Ok, so just give yourself a deadline”, encourages the time management gurus. Well, what’s to stop someone from blowing past that deadline? I mean….as someone who struggles with imposed structure, why would I put myself in charge of ensuring I get anything done? Kudos to those people who impose a deadline and stick to it. You have magical powers.

The thing with deadlines is we usually set them so that we get something done ahead of schedule and aren’t scrambling last minute (which, let’s be honest if you’re reading this you THRIVE in the 11th hour! If it ain’t broke….). These “early deadlines” become laughing stock as we look to the actual deadline and go “yeah, I got time”

The underlying issue being “I don’t feel like doing it right now”. So I will either wait until I feel like it, or wait until I absolutely must do it.

Luckily, motivation isn’t something you will never experience. You aren’t doomed to watch your to-do list expand ad infinitum. But you may need to get real with yourself about whether the conventional strategies you are trying have really taken your actual disposition and needs in mind.