March 16, 2021 by  Ashley Guberman

Accountability Groups are a fantastic idea, but they usually break down for predictable reasons.  Think about the last one you were in as you read the following, then make your next one better.

The structure is simple enough.  

  • You meet periodically
  • You each declare what you want to accomplish before the next meeting.
  • Somebody writes it down.
  • You check in on the status at the next meeting.
  • Repeat.

At first, it works great.  You all want to get more done.  You want to complete work that matters and accomplish what you set out to do.  You don’t want to look bad in front of your peers.  Then, things start falling apart for one of two highly predictable reasons.

1. We Allow Circumstances to be More Important Than Our Declarations.

The first is that something else “comes up” that prevents you from doing what you said.  Or maybe a conflict arises and you can’t make the meeting anymore.  Those sound like reasonable excuses grounded in reality, but they are not.  We don’t let anything “come up” that gets in the way of breathing, and it’s seldom that we stop eating too.  

But wait!  Those are biological necessities – they don’t count, right?  Nothing gets in the way of those because we accept them as necessary.  But when it comes to doing what we said we were going to do, somehow, that’s not strictly required.  The death spiral starts like this:

  • We allow things to come up and get in the way.  
  • There were no real consequences of not doing what we said.  
  • We begin to skip the meetings, or we show up having not done what we declared.  
  • We realize that the group is not helping us.  
  • Finally, we leave yet another failed accountability group, or we stop working with our coach, whom we hoped would serve the same function.

It does not have to be that way.  The key to making an accountability group effective is how we (and the leader in particular) respond to the inevitable breakdowns above.

2. We’re Too “Nice” to Each Other, Because Deep Down, We’re Afraid

The first breakdown will happen.  I promise.  But it’s how we respond that leads to the second.

When somebody shares why they failed to keep their self-commitment, we let them off the hook.  “Yeah, well, I understand.  Yes, that’s an acceptable excuse.”  We never say that, of course, but when we let our peers off the hook for failing to keep their word, our behavior does it for us.

Nobody in the group has any real power over each other, so what would be the point of making a big deal about a failed commitment?  The big deal is that unless we hold others to account for their breakdowns, they won’t keep us accountable to our own.  Secretly, that may be what we want, but that slack is more about our comfort than our objectives.

The consequence of not holding each other to account for our word is that the group ceases to have value.  When that happens, the group is on its death-bed, and the only thing keeping it on life-support is that we like each other.

Help For The Panic Monster

Tim Urban, of Wait, But Why has a Ted Talk about Procrastination.   He describes our brain as a combination of a “Rational Decision Maker,” the “Instant Gratification Monkey,” and the “Panic Monster.”  

As it relates to accountability groups, rational decisions are the declarations we make about what we are going to do, by when, and for what purpose.  Instant gratification is about the excuses we use for not fulfilling our declarations.  The panic monster is what wakes us up to our commitments to others and kicks us into action. The Panic Monster wants us to save face, preserve our reputation, and maintain our identity as competent.  

The problem is that when it comes to our own declarations, the panic monster is a wimp.  Things we would never do to a friend or customer, we do to ourselves all the time. Accountability groups are an admission that our own panic monster does little than shrug its shoulders in disappointment when it comes to commitments we make to ourselves.  

The support our Panic Monster needs is not about guilt or shame.  It’s not about other people rubbing our noses in our failures.  Instead, it looks like the following.

Reminding Us of the Commitments We Made. 

That’s why we took notes.  Without shame, we must ask the question, “Did I do what I said I was going to do, or not?”  No partial credit.  We did it, or we did not.  This is a factual question.

Challenging New Commitments. 

If I commit to an ambitious goal and you don’t believe I will succeed, the breakdown does not happen at the next meeting.  It’s immediate.  We have to question the level of commitment upfront because our aspirations are almost always greater than our capacity or skills.  It’s not about aiming low.  It’s about hitting the target that we declare.  And if the commitment is grand, then we have to ask, “What structure do you have in place to ensure your success?”  The problem is not our intentions.  It’s the lack of structure to fulfill them, and effective accountability groups are part of that structure.

Aligning Commitments to a Purpose. 

If my goal is to run a marathon and I commit to running to the donut shop, my commitment and purpose don’t line up.  In reality, it’s not this obvious.  But an effective accountability group questions whether our declared commitments will move us forward to reaching our goals.  For a more practical example, committing to updating your logo will not get you more clients this week.  What would?

Modeling the Leader and Membership Role.  

Somebody in the group has to be the facilitator, and sometimes it’s a crappy job.  The facilitator wants the group to be effective, but they are also group members, with the same breakdowns as everybody else.  The leader has to call others on their breakdowns but from supporting their intentions rather than with discipline.  It helps when the leader can model their own breakdowns and how to respond to them.  Another is making it clear to the other members that they can call the leader out on her breakdowns too.  Doing so is essential to long-term success.

This is hardly an exhaustive list of how to make accountability groups work.  In the comment section below, I invite you to add your own best practices for making your groups effective.

And if you have a great product or service, but you’re not making the progress you are committed to regarding getting more clients, then let’s have a conversation.  I’m committed to helping businesses grow by improving their messaging and marketing operations.  Schedule a conversation here.

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