The Advancing Leadership Blog

The Difference Between Discipline and Accountability


  • Punishment.

You just read Merriam-Webster’s top definition for discipline. Not its second definition. Not even its third.

No. Its top definition.

With a denotation as harsh as “punishment,” it’s no wonder that so many people fear the word—and the concept—of “discipline.”

True: in order to achieve your most ambitious goals, some sacrifice and hard work will be required. Some discipline will be required.

But that doesn’t mean your journey has to be fraught with punishment.

When done right, discipline makes you more effective, more efficient, and brings you closer to your goals. Here’s how to tackle self-discipline in a way that doesn’t feel like…well, punishment.

Redefining Discipline: How to Get Yourself to Procrastinate Less and Achieve More

Despite all our complexity, human beings are a fairly predictable lot.

Our behavior is guided by two principles: the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure. Sometimes our behavior varies based on our perceptions of pain and pleasure, but for the most part this axiom holds true.

If you want more self-discipline in your life, you have to stop viewing work as painful. No matter how committed you are to your goals, you’ll eventually find a way to avoid the perceived pain of work. In turn, your self-discipline will show signs of cracking.

Instead, make work exciting and enticing. Here are a couple of tips:

  • Take frequent breaks. The Pomodoro method advocates working 25 minutes and taking 5 off every half hour. It’s much easier to start a 25 minute block of work than telling yourself you’re going to work for 4 hours straight until lunch. Click here for a handy web-based Pomodoro app.
  • Tackle hard work first. Once you’ve used the above technique to get started, it’s important to learn that you’ll be more efficient throughout the day by tackling the hardest work first. The more you work, the easier it gets!

Of course, self-discipline is not the full story of achievement. In order to bring an entire organization into this new way of doing things, you have to expand into accountability.

Accountability: Discipline Applied to Your Entire Business

What’s the difference between discipline and accountability?

Put simply, accountability is discipline applied to an entire team of people—not just an individual.

You can use the same principles you use in self-discipline to boost the accountability of your organization. But it has to be a team effort. Others must be invested in the commitment to greater accountability.

Remember: people tend to avoid pain and seek pleasure. So don’t count on people to remain accountable—instead, give them incentives for greater accountability. Design rewards for jobs well done. Give them incentives for hard work and give them the leeway to grow into their own methods of self-discipline.

Most importantly: communicate to your team that accountability is not something to be afraid of. It’s something to be embraced as a way to strengthen the team.

Accountability, like discipline, does not have to be not all about punishment.

Building Discipline For the Long-Term

Discipline and accountability, like so many other virtues, come about as the result of good habits. It’s your job as an entrepreneur and as a leader to foster these habits—both in yourself and in the people around you.

Start with yourself. Improve your self-discipline using the tips listed above and figure out what truly works for you. Then ask yourself how you can use these same principles on a company-wide basis. You won’t only learn the difference between discipline and accountability, but discipline and punishment. The two terms don’t have to be synonymous anymore.

Elizabeth Ledoux is a TEC Speaker and the CEO of vNacelle Consulting, a company which helps develop transition plans for enterprises to allow the business to continue after their leaders leave or retire.

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