The Psychology of Accountability: Why It Fails to Stick and How to Overcome It

By Sarah McVanel, Chief Recognition Officer, Greatness Magnified

image of a person writing on a note pad and typing on a laptop with another image of a person with their finger in front of their lips saying shhhHave you ever found that you’re hesitant to tell anyone what you’re learning? In fact, you may be hesitant to admit it to yourself.

What if you don’t keep going?
What if you can’t do it?
What if you lose your mojo?

After all, you tell yourself it was embarrassing when somebody asked you the last time you decided you wanted to learn something, “Hey, how’s it going with X?”, and you sheepishly explained that you’re no longer learning it. You dropped it. Or maybe you shared an excuse. No doubt a legitimate one. Your ageing parents required your support. Your kids were put into more demanding sports and activities. You got a promotion. You started the side hustle. All legit. And yet all veiled with a tiny little shame chaser.

So here you are. Gun-shy to try. And even more gun-shy to tell the world you are trying. Even to tell your bestie.

Got Accountability?

We hear about accountability buddies all the time. Great idea, right? So you get up the nerve to tell one person. You hold them accountable, they hold you accountable. Poof! Motivation magic!

For a while, possibly for a long while, you and your bud are kicking it. Crushing it even! And then something happens. There’s a big holiday, and the pattern is interrupted. They go on holiday or do a lot of travelling for work, and you think, I’ll just wait until my accountability buddy is back, and sure enough, restarting seems to be trickier than starting in the first place. After all, you can’t even remember the motivation and the thinking that got you into the place that made you want to take off like a rocket on the starting block, buddy by your side.

image of a person laying on a couch face down with their feet hanging over and their shoes and glasses on the floor with the title Shame Hangover written above the imageSuddenly the concept of accountability has inadvertently triggered a shame hangover. Or perhaps apathy aches? Maybe excuse echoes? Any way you slice it, you remember the thing that you wanted and that you didn’t get it.

(You may be thinking right about now, what’s with the lack of “motivation messages” Sarah? Aren’t you hired to inspire people for a living? What’s with the downer vibes?)

I’ve got good news for you. Ready for it?


You. Can. Do. This. You have done this! The secret ingredient is something super easy, pretty enjoyable, and totally doable. Practice.

Building a Practice of…Practice

Rather than proclaim to the world the next time you decide that there’s something important, something you would like to learn, something you’re keen to try, and it may be something that has not worked to the extent you wanted it to in the past despite all of those great life hacks, like accountability partners, reframe it as practice.

image of a gilded frame with a white background in the frameBy reframing, I do not mean making an excuse. By definition, reframing means putting a picture in a different frame. Your picture of your aspiration, you’re simply putting in a new frame. The frame is practice.

You’re still making movement toward something that you want, and instead of it being in a frame of a huge, lofty goal, wayyyyy out there in the future, you’re putting it into a manageable and super durable frame of ongoing process of practice. All you’re doing is practicing, practicing, practicing.

Have you ever practiced something so regularly that you found you learned something pretty cool? Maybe you even surprised yourself or others. Here’s the secret we’ve all experienced, but it’s so humble a life lesson we barely clock it: practice creates big, juicy outcomes. Perhaps also, the power of practice is enough; maybe “accomplishment” is the big jazz hands goal in flashing lights, but actually, the starting act of joy, enthusiasm, and curiosity is what steals the show.

The other definition for a reframe has a bit more of a psychology spin to it (so you know I loooooove it): it is to frame or express – words, concepts, a plan – differently. In other words, you are not changing the intention. You are shifting the focus. The framing of this experience is about practicing it each time.

Here are three times when a reframe is an incredible vehicle for self-recognition and accomplishment :

1. When Trying Something New

As much as new things can be exciting, they can also be intimidating. The Hedonic principle” is a psych concept that illustrates how we are wired to move toward things that make us feel good and away from things that make us feel uncomfortable. If we focus on the new thing, we might hesitate to venture into completely new territory. When we practice the continual art of practice, and we frame, this is not a new thing, but yet another example of something you do in your life, the practice, all of a sudden, of trying something is simply part of an ongoing muscle that you’re working.

When practice is the engine, and you’re continually linking your own mind back to the concept of practice (any practice that you have been engaged in, including completely unrelated activities), it fuels other new things that you’re trying. It’s like a self-charging battery of self-recognition.

2. When Eyes Are On You

an image of two women standing with their heads side by side showing only one eye of each womanWhen you don’t want to let somebody down, or perhaps, just simply not be embarrassed about not following through, you may be hesitant to start. That’s the flip side to the whole accountability buddy concept. Sure, they can get you motivated and keep it going, but then there is this guilt and shame peace if you feel like you’re letting them down. We often talk about goals that you need to proclaim them. That too, should help to keep you accountable. Think about the last time you proclaimed something on your social media feed, to your mom, at work, and what you hoped to achieve fell short of reality. Just simply recalling it will make you less likely to want to try it in the future. Better to pull it back and think and plan a little bit smaller so you don’t feel embarrassed or inferior in the eyes of others.

Here’s another psych concept for you: the “Spotlight Effect,” where you think that people are watching and observing us way more than they actually are. We may think that people are keeping a tally of our successes amidst ups. However, they’re more in their own heads and their own lives than they are in ours. Remembering that you were simply engaging in ongoing practice allows you to stay present in what you were doing, rather than second-guessing how it looks on the outside towards creating something visible enough that people can see achievement and progress.

3. When You Have “Failed” Before

Perhaps the most challenging place for me to venture into new, ambitious territory is getting stuck in a mental loop of all of the examples of where I have failed to make progress before. I actually like starting new things. I am persistent to the extreme, sometimes to my detriment, so the eyes on me concept is not as strongly a deterrent as it once was. (I also intensely start things early, as you may have caught in my podcast with my daughter, a fellow _pre_crastinator). Ask me what my past failures were, and I could easily go back to the early days of school. You may not even require me to go back that far. In fact, if I did, you’d be bored senseless. For me, though, I feel like I’m not accurately giving you the full picture of all of the evidence as to why I might not be successful if I didn’t fully clock that failure written history. This is coming from the author of The Flip Side of Failing.

image of a paper horn with confetti springing out in a celebration loopHere’s what I’ve learned through this unhealthy fill-your-feedback loop: there is this really yummy loop that sits right beside it. And it’s called The Celebration Loop. What are all the things that you have succeeded in, survived, and possibly even thrived in despite the odds and obstacles? We have a negativity bias that loops in our thoughts (and we believe our thoughts are “facts” when actually they are simply a selection of some data and not all of it). Sometimes we have to notice it and shift. Very intentionally. This, in and of itself, can be practice. Practice sifting through your mind of all of the evidence where you have made progress, rather than anchor yourself to all of the missteps, “broken promises”, and goals not reached.

Let’s Talk About It

Maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, we talk about accountability a lot, but we aren’t getting anywhere.” Or maybe you’re thinking, “Yeah, we do feel a lot of shame around what others might think, and that’s actually killing productivity.” Perhaps the penny has dropped that, “Wow, our focus on production and performance is what’s killing our culture of recognition.”

We can help. Maybe it’s time to embrace healthy productivity, collaboration and achievement by flipping our whole notion of failing through a human behaviour lens. Let’s unconditionally recognize ourselves and others. We aren’t just happier, our relationships are healthier and our performance amplies.

Let’s talk!

P.S. My friend and fellow HR guru Christi Scarrow recently gave a TEDx Talk on accountability recently. You will want to check it out.

Have a sampling of how you can persevere and flip failure in these other posts:

Disclaimer/Humble Brag Moment: 100% of this content was human-generated (by us folks here at Greatness Magnified). We are committed to authorship integrity and will inform you what percentage, if any, AI is generated.

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