When Accountability Backfires

September 21st, 2014

I used to forget to turn off the lights in my office. When my wife Kim noticed, she turned them off for me.

One day she got tired of this routine and stuck a post-it note on the light switch to remind me to flip it off when leaving. It started off as a joke, including a tally of how many times she had to deliver her “lights off service.” It was very effective, until I ripped it off the wall in frustration.

One day, after two months of success, I got two tic marks from Kim back-to-back. I had a surprisingly strong emotional reaction to this. I angrily pulled the post-it off the wall, crumpled it, and pitched it in the trash.

I’m not completely incorrigible, though. I still turn the lights off, even without the post-it reminder.

I’ll come back to this point.

A second story, related to the first…

I used to rave about the smartphone app DuoLingo, which helped me hone my French and Spanish skills. The app is gamified, so users get points for regular use and language proficiency. I had worked my way up to a 46-day streak of achievements. Then, on day 48, at 12:01am, I received a sad-trombone message notifying me that my streak had come to an end. I had accidentally slipped up and missed a day.

My attitude towards DuoLingo soured.  That was 3 months ago, and I haven’t opened the app since.

The common theme in these two stories is that after some initial sustained compliance, I actively rebelled against the accountability.

Why? I have a theory:

Self-deception, when exposed, triggers defensiveness.

I thought I would perform well against both these assignments. Turn off the lights? Easy. Do some language homework on my phone each night? Piece of cake. It turns out I was fooling myself. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my thinking went something like this: “I can submit to this. Success will affirm my ego. I’ll play along.” In both cases, if I’m going to be honest with myself, I thought I didn’t really need the accountability, until I did. I was play-acting submission to the accountability.

Failing at these tasks revealed the truth—I needed some outside help to keep me on track. I got resentful when my self-deception was exposed.

This is useful for me to understand, both as an individual who needs to be held accountable (to be alert to my own play-acting) and also as a leader who holds others accountable (to help others identify and deal with their own self-deception).

[Josh Davis, thanks for your insight into this dynamic.]

The difference between the two stories is that I continued with the desired behavior in one, but stopped cold turkey in the other.   Why?  On this one, I confess I’m a little stuck.

I have a handful of theories, none of which seem to fully explain my behavior. I’ve thought about it quite a bit. But before I reveal my ideas, I’d like to hear some more opinions. Perhaps you have an insight into this question that has been nagging at me:

Why do I still turn off my office lights religiously, while I have not continued with DuoLingo?

I’d love to hear your theories.  Fire away, and I’ll post some more of my thinking later.


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21 Responses to “When Accountability Backfires”

  1. Hi Chip,

    Interesting questions… my initial gut reaction is that you continued to turn off the lights because someone was holding you accountable (and/or shaming you in a kind way), but with DuoLingo, there was no one checking up on you to see if you were continuiing on with your plan. While that analysis probably is fairly obvious, I think it is important to note. Anytime you want to gurantee or have greater success in whatever goal you are trying to achive (work-out daily, eat healthier, etc.), it’s important to involve those we respect to check-in on us from time to time. Granted that can be frustrating/annoying at times, it is typically more effective in maintaining that behavior if your spouse/boss/co-worker checks on you from time to time to see how you are doing on said goal.

  2. Exposed self-deception triggering defensiveness is quite brilliant. As to why…my guess is you value your spousal relationship and stewardship of electricity far greater than foreign language skills.

  3. Chip,

    Thanks for sharing this. In my hermeneutics class recently I was studying conditional and unconditional covenants, when my prof recommended I look at a Ted Talk called “The Puzzle of Motivation” by Daniel Pink.

    Your Lightswitch-DuoLingo dilemma represents a portion of what he speaks to about external vs internal motivators and how studies have revealed that “sticks & carrots” only work in a narrow bandwidth of tasks, namely simple/semi-automated. Higher functions/more complex tasks are actually diminished by this approach. Pinks theory is autonomy/mastery/purpose are what propel people to achieve (he cites business models like Google etc.) I am not sure I fully agree with him when viewed from a Biblical perspective (autonomy in particular) but it certainly is an interesting tie in to your reaction in both instances.

    Thanks for the opportunity to “catalyze” with your tribe.


    • That is a thought-provoking video, Kevin.

      Your comment about the Biblical view of autonomy intrigues me. One element of my faith is the belief that God is not coercive; He gives us freedom to choose. So although we are under His authority, my experience has been that He wields it with care, and with a light hand. We are morally (legally, I suppose, in a spiritual sense) obligated to obey, but we are not compelled forcefully to do so. We can choose to submit, or to go our own way. I think the best human bosses wield their authority in this manner (although imperfectly).

  4. 1. I think we have differing levels of accountability to others (household members) than we do to ourselves or to artificial monitors (DuoLingo)
    2. In reality, we are human beings who are imperfect. The “streak” on My Fitness Pal just makes me angry because the streak is not reflective of my progress. It’s a proxy at best; it is measuring the consistency of my engagement, not my true progress. And the world is not going to fall apart when I miss a day tracking on My Fitness Pal, or you on DuoLingo; nor does it mean I have regressed. But the breaking of the streak seems a harsh penalty for that, and I think some of us experience some psychologial retailiation.

  5. Chip,

    Research into high performing companies indicates that employees perform at high levels when their individual values match the values of the company. I think it is the same reason you turn off the lights. Your value for your wife, your relationship, what you can provide to your children far outweigh your value for paying the electric company more or developing your language skills.

    Speaking of developing your language skills, perhaps you haven’t opened the app again, not because you were held accountable in some small manner, but rather because it just doesn’t register that high on your list of values. Whether you call it a reward or a benefit, you just weren’t getting that much out of it to reinvest your time and energy. I suggest your value to learning a new language has simply changed. And that’s the thing about values, they constantly change and are very fluid.

    In order to empower your life, empower change, empower others such as your family or your employees, it is important to become aware of what you value, what your company values, and what they value at any given time, and across time. It’s also important to understand what you “say” you value, and what you “do” value.

  6. Your question is the easy part: you love your wife more than you love Siri. God thing. Your challenge to remember this dynamic and keep it in mind when my role is to motivate others is the tough part.

  7. Chip,
    Love how you share your insight/wisdom even while it is in formation, engaging the dialogue. Framing questions is an art, thanks maestro.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about how people build relationships with each other and what are the conditions that support and hinder that. Our relationships inform so many of our decisions and actions, sometimes unconsciously.

    So, it strikes me that your thoughts about turning off the office lights has become woven into your relationship with Kim. Whereas your thoughts about improving your language skills are more internal and perhaps less connected to your relationships with others? If you and a close friend had been frequently discussing the need to improve your Spanish, would the Duolingo trombone have triggered something different in you?

    Cheers my friend.

    • Danimal, I like your question. The short answer is that if I had committed to a friend that I would work on my language skills, I would have been more likely to continue with DuoLingo even after my streak ended abruptly.

      Moreover, if I had committed to Kim that I would work on my Spanish, then I absolutely would have continued.

      Which proves your point. It appears you have become the true maestro…

  8. Hi Chip! Interesting post. Off the cuff my analysis was a bit different than those mentioned above, though I do see the merit in those replies as well. My initial response was that with one you knew that the “feedback” was coming from a positive place – one of wanting to save electricity and share the burden of caring for the house. You probably knew that your wife didn’t intend to stick it to you, but merely offer a gentle/playful reminder.

    With the App, the trombone sound in stark contrast to your progress thus far sent a big “you fail” message instead of acknowledging the progress thus far. Since it’s an entity, there is no sense of knowing that the “feedback” is coming from a positive place which would naturally elicit a “f-you” response given the effort you had already put in.

    Just a theory! Hope you are well! ST

  9. Chip,
    Possibly your accoutability to your wife,sorry light switch, is more important to you than your accountability to Duo Lingo, Relationships that are most important to us have more consequences immediately and long term than our personal ambitions (Duo Lingo) and consequences for contiuing or quitting if only momentarily. Great choice!

  10. I agree with many of the comments, so won’t repeat them. One additional thought – positive reinforcement, from an external source (i.e. your wife) can be a great motivator, vs. knowing yourself (and only yourself) that you have done well with an on-line program. We all step up our game when there is a proverbial audience. Accountability, yes. Ego as well, perhaps? A desire for those extrinsic (vs intrinsic) reinforcers.

  11. You love Kim more than you do learning the Spanish Language. And it is possibly easier to achieve the Kim goal faster. We all like instant gratification, or whatever is closest to it.

  12. Hi Chip,
    Interesting that you parallel the two forms of accountability: 1. A person who you fully trust and have a continued relationship with (meaning she’s not going anywhere) and 2. an app that a). doesn’t care for you or your successes and that’s designed to point out your failures (well, it may produce some happy trombone sound when you do well) and b). will disappear as soon as you turn it off (meaning, you control the accountability). The first one, seems much more effective because there’s mutual trust and ongoing relationship and therefore ongoing accountability.

    There’s also a part about circumstances… but I can’t quite figure it out completely. So, perhaps, if you continue your undesired behavior in the first scenario, I assume you are going to face further undesired circumstances that will affect you AND compromise your trusting relationship with you wife; in the second one, however, the only circumstance you face is that you miss out on your daily foreign language training (and there are other alternatives to getting the desired results than using this stupid, non-caring, pushy little app).

  13. Simple. You think Kim is more attractive than DuoLingo. Keep it up amigo.

  14. Chip,

    I’m no psychologist, but I think there are two keys as to why you kept going with the former but not the latter “obligation.” The first, and more powerful, reason is the catalyst behind the behavior. As others said, in one case you have your wife, someone you love and respect, asking you to turn off the lights. While you resented her for reminding you, you ultimately want to make her happy. The app, on the other hand, is just a piece of software you downloaded to your phone. It’s not human, you don’t have any ties to it, and you don’t have the same emotional reaction to letting it down. The second is that turning off the lights means saving energy, which is an inherently good thing for your pocketbook and the world. Learning a language, on the other hand, is more of a “nice to have.” I’m sure there are many other reasons, but those two stand out to me.

    The bigger point here for me, though, is how defensiveness keeps us from doing things. Everyone leader wants to grow and improve but if the call to action for us to do so isn’t right we probably won’t do it. We need to realize the people we lead are the exact same way. Whether the goal is to instill a new behavior, correct a bad one or create some other desirable action, if we cause them to recoil back into a defensive mode because of how we approach the subject we probably won’t get the desired result. Of course, the nature of human nature is everyone is different. So how do we account for that? We have to know and understand everyone we lead well enough to know what style of management works for them. Some people like tough love. Others like a little understanding to go along with a firm hand of guidance. If we can avoid putting those we lead on defense, we stand to gain a lot.

    There’s a lot more I want to say about technology, our growing reliance on it and human nature but since I think this is already the longest response I’ll quit now, whether I’m ahead or not.

    P.S. I’d love to see a poll of how many people stuck with Codeacademy, the red-hot app at the beginning of this year that was going to teach everyone to learn to code. I bet the number is less than 2%.

    • “if we cause them to recoil back into a defensive mode because of how we approach the subject we probably won’t get the desired result.”

      Indeed. When we “psychologically lean” on others, they naturally recoil. I think what causes us (leaders) to engage in this ineffective tactic is our neediness. When we can only be satisfied/filled by another’s behavior, it generates a lot of unwelcome psychological pressure.

  15. Chip,

    I agree with several of the previous posts. I believe your success with one activity versus the other has everything to do with who is holding you accountable. With the lights, it is your wife and since you value that relationship and you recognize the shared benefit of turning off the lights (however small it may actually be for that one instance) you turn them off even without the reminder. Your initial negative reaction to the sticky note, I would suggest, is simply a recognition that you should not need reminding and you feel guilty that your wife had to resort to that.

    For the language app, your “failure” to maintain the streak and the negative reinforcement of that fact turned you off. As one of the other posters suggested, the streak itself in no way indicated your actual progress. If you felt you had made significant progress in your understanding of the languages, this negative reinforcement negates that good feeling, putting you on the defensive. If you were not happy with your progress to start, then the negative reminder reinforced a feeling of failure, which most people will turn away from. However, since you were only accountable to yourself, you can easily rationalize ceasing this activity completely because you are not letting anyone else down by stopping.

  16. Brad, I agree with you! I think the quality of the relationship as a vehicle for accountability may be key. I also wonder if the value attached to the light switch (power conservation) for someone who is fiscally responsible versus “language acquisition” for someone who already speaks one language pretty darn good might have some bearing as well.

    It seems like Chip could afford to lose what would have been gained through a different response to the accountability check from duolingo, but couldn’t afford to lose what would be lost by leaving the lights on. Again I think the relationships that carry these accountability items have to be factored in. In these cases the relational values may very well tip the scales in opposite directions.

    So no my theory looks something like:

    g(Functional Accountability) = (Perceived Relational Value) x (Perceived ValueAdd)

    So if Chip assigns an infinite (∞) relational value to the people involved with the light switch ;-) then the accountability system can approach zero i.e. missing post-it note, but the accountability still functions.
    Now if Chip’s relational assessment of duolingo is 0 (zero), (Functional Accountability) is non-existent.

    The question for me now is: how do we account for what might have been a non-zero value for the duolingo relationship prior to the breach?.. Chip??

    • Chip, I have to believe that you also turn the lights off, because teachers, mothers and the second-to-last-person out of any room have been telling you for years to turn the lights off. Kim was actively reminding you of process that you knew you probably should be doing anyway.
      Josh, where does that fit into your equation?

    • Josh, as you’ve implied, the story of DuoLingo and your equation represent a dynamic system. I wasn’t the same person at the beginning of the story as I was at the end; both of your independent variables shifted over time.

      When my DuoLingo coach (an owl wearing a monocle and smoking jacket) was peppy and cheerful, I felt we were close. When he got all snappy with me, I didn’t have as much desire to stay connected.

      And at the beginning, I felt like I was learning at a good rate. By the end, as my learning plateaued, I wasn’t convinced the decreased rate of learning justified my investment of time. Maybe the sad trombone just forced the issue, waking me up from my tired routine…

      P.S. Why is your function labeled “g”?

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