Accountability Is For Other People

So, here we are, midway through January. How are you doing on those New Year’s resolutions? If you’re like the vast majority of us, it’s been a struggle to start a new good habit and keep it up, or end that bad habit and stick to it — especially if you are doing it all on your own.

Someone once said, “promises are made to be broken,” and often the easiest promise to break is the one we make to ourselves. This is because our brains are wired to keep us alive by meeting short-term needs (I’m hungry, I’m tired, I don’t feel safe), to the detriment of long-term wants that could make your life more optimal. As a result, what your Present Self wants in the short-term has a stronger influence on your behavior today than the goals you and your Future Self have outlined to achieve.

In my last ponderable we touched on accountability briefly as a tactic for helping us change our behavior more towards that which we desire. Being accountable means accepting responsibility for your actions and choices, whether you achieve what you set out to or not. It means you own your behavior and the impact it has on others or, in this case, your Future Self.

When making a promise or commitment to achieve something in the future, accountability is arguably the most powerful tool available to overcome that short-term-focused brain that often would prefer to do something else. If you are falling short in your goals, you are likely trying and failing to keep yourself accountable.

I remember a time when I had decided to exercise every day for a month, and when I got to the gym I discovered it closed early on Sundays. The impulse to make myself a victim of circumstance (“I couldn’t work out because the gym was closed,”) was powerful. Being accountable in this situation meant owning my commitment and finding another way to exercise such as going for a walk or run, or doing some interval training where I didn’t need the gym.

But let’s face it, being accountable to yourself is really hard. It’s so hard, research suggests it’s not even worth doing. One might say you’re actually cheating yourself in the attainment of your goals because, for most people, trying to keep yourself accountable without outside support is a recipe for failure.

I witnessed the stark contrast between self-accountability and support-accountability first hand a few years ago, when I was asked to a light a fire under a woefully underperforming sales team. The company had a solid product and clear value they were bringing to the market, so the CEO was understandably frustrated that sales results were just short of abysmal.

Before beginning my sales training, I spent two days anonymously observing the sales team. I quickly discovered that the Sales Manager, whose job was to keep everyone accountable, was probably the worst procrastinator of the bunch. It was up to the rest of the team to keep themselves accountable, and I could easily see how that was working out. Rather than working the phones to meet their quotas, I saw people spending a good deal of time visiting with each other, surfing the Internet and playing practical jokes.

At a company-wide meeting the following week, the CEO introduced me and explained to everyone the sales training I was there to deliver. You can imagine the looks of shock on the faces of the sales team when they realized who I really was!

After briefly introducing the training we would be doing, I asked everyone to go into the lobby, where a big whiteboard was set up. It was divided into two sections. One section, labeled “Winners,” listed names of those sales people who were meeting their quota. The second “Losers” section listed those who were not. Given the behaviors I witnessed, it wasn’t difficult to see why most of the names were in the Losers column. I explained that at the end of each week names would be shifted between the columns based on who was meeting their quota and who was not.

That first day I did zero sales training. I simply presented a 3-month sales training itinerary, set up the specific and measurable results the CEO was looking for — and that the sales team had already agreed to — and set up the white board. A system of social pressure was created that was designed to hold the whole sales team accountable to the entire office.

Two weeks later, I came in to give the first training and the white board looked completely different. Where before 75% of the people had been in the Losers column, now the majority were in the Winners column. It was a big change in two short weeks, and without any sales training! The only variable was the outside social pressure to get your name off the Losers side.

Research by social psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini tells us that “social influence” is very powerful toward ensuring we keep our commitments. His studies show that an accountability partner can be especially effective when our goals are complex or ambiguous, and when these people are closer in our social circle — meaning we care about what they think of us.

If accountability partners are not a new idea, why do so many of us fail to set them up for ourselves? Perhaps it’s because we’re not fully committed to achieving our goal? Maybe the goal we set was unreasonable? It could be that we were not truly clear about our informing wants and we’re too focused on a strategy. Or perhaps we just don’t like to ask for help. Whatever the reason, without someone keeping us in check, we’re less likely to succeed and more likely to fall short of our commitments. If we’re truly committed to achieving a want, empowering someone to support us in our efforts can increase the likelihood of accomplishment markedly.

A good friend of mine leads “accountability circles,” where people check in and get support around their commitments. The format he shared with me can be used with any support accountability.

In each check-in, your “accountabilibuddy” asks the following questions:

“What was your commitment?”

“Did you keep your commitment?”

If your answer to this second question is yes, you’re done for the day. If your answer is “no,” or “sort-of” (which is a fancy way of saying, “no”), then the check-in continues:

“What did you choose instead?”

“What may be the impact that your choice had on others?”

“What impact does your choice have on you?”

“What is the belief you have about yourself that drove this choice?”

“Do you want to recommit?”

Notice that the word “why” doesn’t show up anywhere. Nor does the accountabilibuddy, in any way, imply that you screwed up by not keeping your commitment. Blame and shame have no place in support accountability. This exercise is about building awareness.

Notice also that the person you enroll in helping you be accountable is not there to do your work for you. It is up to you to completely own your actions and your mistakes. Your support person acts as a mirror, reflecting your actions back to you. What you see in the mirror is up to you, but just knowing that mirror is there can motivate you to change what you see.

Now, let’s break these five questions down:

“What did you choose instead?” Note the accountability built into this question. Consciously or not, you made a choice when you did something other than keep your commitment. Recognizing that empowers to you make a different choice the next time.

“What may be the impact that your choice had on others?” Even self-promises you break can have an impact on others. When I skipped exercising, I had less energy, and thus less desire to spend time with others, and my relationships suffered.

“What impact does your choice have on you?” Recognizing the personal cost of breaking a commitment, to both our future selves and our present sense of self-worth, provides a key impetus for change.

“What is the belief you have about yourself that drove this choice?” Behind every broken promise is a story we tell ourselves about why it’s okay to break it. Whether the belief is grounded in self-doubt (“it doesn’t matter anyway”) or rebellion (“rules are for other people”), once you bring that story into the light it begins to lose power over you.

“Do you want to recommit?” This is a key question that is often overlooked. Being accountable also means owning your choice to make a commitment. Sometimes the most accountable thing you can do is to recognize that you don’t actually want to do the work that is necessary to achieve your goal. When this happens, you have an opportunity to renegotiate an agreement that is more in alignment with who you are.

Take a moment to reflect on how well you’re doing at reaching your 2018 goals. If you’re struggling to keep your promise to yourself, who can you enroll to help provide you with support accountability?

This week, contact one or more of those people, and ask them to be your acountabilibuddy with respect to some goals. Schedule regular check-ins with them, and use the questions outlined above to gain support and awareness when you start to struggle. After two weeks, reflect on your progress towards your goals. You just might be surprised how on-track you are.

“Life is not a solo act. It’s a huge collaboration, and we all need to assemble around us the people who care about us and support us in times of strife.” — Tim Gunn

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