Accountability Group Psychology

By Joel T. Sanders • Posted on May 9th, 2019

When is everyone in an accountability group a rockstar in every area of life? At the first few meetings. But then they become human.

I recently joined a new accountability group, so now I’m a member of four such groups—five if I include my fitness group. Most people, of course, don’t need to be involved with so many groups. For me, it comes down to research for this app, along with a general fascination and curiosity about the psychology of these groups.

This newest group came together for the first time on a Zoom call earlier this week. As a part of our weekly check-in, we were tasked with rating ourselves on a scale of 1 to 10 in the areas of health, environment, business/career, finances, education, play, relationships, and contribution. We used a Google spreadsheet to capture everyone’s stats.

I’m a Loser, Baby

Out of 6 people in the group, I was the only person rating myself below a “five” in any area. In fact, I had myself below a 5 in three different categories, including a “2,” “3,” and “4.”

For the other members of the group, everyone ranked themselves as a 7 or above in every category, with the exception of one member, who gave himself a “5” for finances. Twenty of the 48 total self-rankings (42%) were “9s” and “10s,” and ten of the self-rankings (21%) were “10s.”

So what gives? Is everyone in the group (except for me) simply crushing it in every area of business and life? Why would such super humans want to join an accountability group?

The obvious answer is that this kind of self-ranking is clearly subjective. And without instructions from the group leader on what a “10” or a “1” might represent, you’re going to get natural variability.

For me, a 10 represents, “I’ve arrived…improvement in this category isn’t required.” For example, if I had a billion dollars in liquid assets, I think I could safely say that getting to $1.1 billion would have zero impact on my well-being. A “10” would be in order.

A ranking of 2 or 3, on the other hand, is a signal to the group that says, “Hey gang, this is an area where I could use some help.” So my perspective was to use the rankings as a signal to the group on where I want more or less accountability, as well as areas where I might be able to contribute.

Others in the group were almost certainly looking at these differently, using other heuristics for self-measurement. But that still doesn’t explain why everyone’s self-ranking was so high, with me as the lone exception.

Group Think and the Facebook Effect

My guess is that we experienced a form of “group think” psychology. As status-seeking social animals, our tendency is to quickly assesses what the group deems as acceptable or unacceptable, and to put our best foot forward. It’s a form of the “Facebook effect,” i.e., to be seen as successful and to hide our vulnerabilities.

In this case, the group leader went through his rankings first as an example, and he gave himself relatively high rankings in every category.  The next person followed suit with comparatively high rankings, and so on down the line, with plenty of self-congratulatory 9s and 10s. So the group leader inadvertently kicked off what I would view as “self-ranking inflation” for the entire group.

Why was I an outlier? While the group leader was explaining the spreadsheet, and before he ranked himself, I quickly went through the spreadsheet on my own and ranked myself in all of the categories. That, and the fact that I’m an open book in these groups since I have quite a bit of experience with them, probably explains my lower numbers. And since I was the last person to talk, my rankings didn’t influence anyone else in the group that lower rankings were acceptable.

Going Deep Takes Time

In an accountability group, of course, that means that we’re less likely to grow. If nobody has any weaknesses, why put forth any effort? The faster individuals in a group can get to, “Push me, gang. I have plenty of room to grow!” the greater the gains for everyone.

This isn’t a criticism, by any means, of this group or its members. By all measures, it is a group of exceptionally successful human beings in all of these areas and more. I’m excited to be a part of it.

I’m curious to see how this plays out with time. I know from experience with these groups that as people get to know one another, they tend to open up. I expect that it will take three or four calls before others in the group feel confident enough to explore areas of themselves where they’re struggling in an open discussion.

Perhaps I’ll write a follow-up article on this in 6 week’s time to report back on how it’s going. Let me know if you’re curious!

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