Forget Mentors, Find an Accountability Partner

I don’t know about you, but I know I am definitely more motivated to go for a run if I have a friend waiting for me down the street. This and other peer pressure topics were on my mind when I was buried in research for my upcoming book and found Tim Church, M.D., Professor of Preventative Medicine at Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

Tim advises companies on ways to create effective wellness programs, and he has found that peer pressure in a work setting is important to making the program work. Per Tim,

“A significant predictor of whether people are going to stay on an exercise program is if they have a friend (either an individual or group) who works out with them. Getting people connected to each other is critical.”

We are social animals by our very nature, and if we promise someone we will meet them at the gym, we feel really guilty if we do not keep our promise. Research shows that having a partner or “exercise buddy” can be highly effective at ensuring we will actually work out, not just talk about it.

I’m also a big fan of Dr. Robert Cialdini, a well-known social psychologist, who has written a great deal about “social influence” and decision-making. His studies show that 1) peer pressure is powerful, especially when the decisions we are making are complex or ambiguous, and 2) the closer we are to the person or group we are comparing ourselves to, the more likely we are to be influenced by them.

I noticed that some of the really healthy, outcome-focused organizations I visited during my research were using these peer-based partnerships to help their employees meet not only personal health goals but also business goals. It turns out this peer pressure thing, when you turn up the “accountability” knob, is a motivator for a lot more than losing a few pounds. Compared to mentorship—a more hierarchical relationship—a peer to peer relationship seems to be easier to organize, and it is a more effective tool for making progress towards a goal. Accountability partnerships work when they are a collaboration between two colleagues who like and respect one another—your partner is someone you trust, who will keep you honest and moving on a path you set for yourself. And setting up an accountability partnership is refreshingly simple:

1. Find someone you trust to be your accountability partner (a different personality from you is good, maybe better).
2. Talk to them about your goals.
3. Get specific with them about actions you will want to take to meet your goals as well as consequences/rewards for taking or not taking them.
4. Set up regular check-in times (this can be a text message, no need to meet every time).
5. Revisit goals and strategies every once in a while to make sure you are on track.

I’ve seen a few working variations of the idea of accountability partnerships. One company I visited during my research had a system of accountability called “talking partners.” The idea with talking partners is to choose partners who are not necessarily part of your team and who have a personality a little different from yours. Employees are encouraged to touch base with their talking partners daily, ideally in the morning, to chat informally about what’s on their minds and blow off steam if necessary. A talking partner is a co-mentor, helping to keep employees honest with themselves and to help them see things from multiple perspectivesensuring they are meeting their physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and project goals.

Another company I visited has adopted a hybrid of the talking partner and mentor model. They use a large number of coaches sourced from within the company who guide the career paths of every employee in the organization, giving them regular positive as well as constructive feedback to ensure employee success. These coaches are hand-picked because they are well-connected within the organization and have a wide reach. Coaches have some managerial responsibilities, and they regularly move employees around to different teams to expose them to different parts of the business and to keep things interesting.

The flexible nature of accountability partnerships is a big plus—you or your organization can shape the model to fit your needs. And another plus is that an accountability partner doesn’t have to be someone who does what you do. Your partner doesn’t have to be super “networked” in your industry or someone famous. Your partner just has to be committed to helping you succeed.

At the end of the day, we are much more likely to take action if someone is taking note and tracking our goals, but also coaching us and cheering us on along the way. Smart companies understand this and have integrated it into their culture and the way they do business. The results are better financial performance and employee retention, all of which leads to  happier workers. With a system like accountability partners in place, employees feel their company as a whole is looking out for them and they are more likely to stick around and continue to grow personally and professionally.

Leigh Stringer’s upcoming book, The Healthy Workplace (AMACOM, July 2016), provides research on how changing certain behaviors and modifying work environments can improve employees’ sleep, nutritional choices, and mental focus, and how these changes can yield positive results, contributing to a business’s bottom line.

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