True Commitment


When people talk about some of their best work experiences, they always talk about the level of commitment that existed among hose doing the work. And we frequently hear managers lament today, “if only my people were committed to what we are doing.”

The word commitment is sure getting a lot of attention these days. But, it has taken on a new meaning in the workplace, and for that matter in everyday life. On countless occasions, I have been involved in meetings where people made commitments to each other about actions to be taken. Not only were these actions never taken, but when the people left the meeting, most of them knew the so-called commitments would never be fulfilled. It seems commitment has taken second seat to convenience, and does this ever cause problems.

If we believe that it is important for our people to be committed, we need to understand what that means. We also need to know what our responsibilities as leaders are to make it possible.

There are some common words that people use to describe those times when they have been totally committed to something. They talk about passion, excitement, heart, will, desire, and other similar types of emotional words. Compare this with words most frequently stressed by business managers – objectives, budgets, financial returns, process improvement, efficiencies, and so forth.

Some will go so far as to label passion and heart as the “soft stuff,” and make a compelling case for focusing on the “hard stuff” like profits. It is obvious from the tone and emphasis that the emotional concepts are just not as important.

Lesson number one about commitment is this: true commitment occurs when an individual feels committed. Buying in, intellectually, is not enough – one must be in emotionally.

Let me share a story that brings home the need for emotional commitment. I was once talking with a department head who was complaining about the overall performance level of some of his people. Oh, how he wished they could just be more committed. He spoke almost entirely about performance criteria, and very little about passion or spirit. Those things, he cited, were not very measurable, and although they might make one feel good, they certainly did not put money in the bank.

Then the conversation took an unexpected twist. He started talking (with great excitement) about the NBA playoff game he had watched on television the night before between the Utah Jazz and the Chicago Bulls. It was more than a typical Michael Jordan night on the court. Jordan was almost bedridden with food poisoning or some kind of stomach virus, and yet he turned in one of the most spectacular performance of his career. Not only did he play nearly the entire game, he constantly made plays that left players and spectators alike, in complete awe. His performance turned the championship series in favor of the Bulls.

The manager could not believe what Jordan had accomplished, and his description of Jordan’s “evening of work” was quite revealing. Over and over, he stressed the amount of guts, determination, desire and most of all heart that Jordan showed. Funny thing – he did not know the exact number of points, assists, steals or other measurable objectives that Jordan had. But he sure remembered (and probably still does today) what Jordan did to win that crucial game.

Here’s the moral. It was Jordan’s emotional commitment that enabled him to shine and his team to win. Without genuine passion and love for the game, Jordan would not even have been on the floor that night. And if he was not on the floor, he could have never put the ball through the hoop so many times, and inspired his team mates to do the same.

Let me repeat — a person is not totally committed until s/he is emotionally committed. Intellectual commitment is just not enough.

That’s the rub in many business settings. Too often in the workplace, we focus most of our energy on achieving intellectual buy-in. We give all of the logical reasons why our workers should be committed to a given course of action. The actions being proposed seem to make sense, so individuals naturally nod their heads in agreement. The trouble is their hearts and spirits are not invested. And that causes this all too frequent and very frustrating situation: Because our people have totally agreed that the discussed actions should be taken, we assume they will be taken. Unfortunately, the people never in any fashion felt committed to take any kind of personal action about them. They just agreed things “should be done.” Days or weeks later, we scratch our heads wondering why the work was never completed.

This can occur even when we assign names to the specific actions to be taken and visibly post them on a chart for all to see. Sometimes people commit out of convenience (to get the meeting over), not because they are truly committed. When we fail to help our people become emotionally invested, we are dooming ourselves to mediocre results — and the growth of cynicism.

I have seen managers take strong stands against the mere thought of emotions in the workplace.

“We can’t have a bunch of people going off halfcocked just because something doesn’t feel right. We need people who can rationally think through circumstances and consequences, whether the outcome personally suits them or not.”

It’s hard to disagree with that — and yet you still better find a way for your people to get emotionally connected or you will never be able to accomplish the extraordinary.

If you question the power of emotional commitment, think about these questions.

Have you ever heard the expression, “we do our best work in a crisis.” Why do you suppose that occurs?

Have you ever declined to buy something that you really needed, was a good value, and made perfect sense for you to buy? Why?

Why do so many mergers fail, when they look so good on paper?

Have you ever listened to someone who was directly involved with “putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade,” describe what that mission was like?

Extra credit for those of you who have families — Are you intellectually committed or emotionally committed to them? Think about the implications of that!

Remember: there is a huge gap between “I should” and “I want to.” Is it any wonder why major change is so difficult when people are intellectually committed to the new future (I know we need to change) but emotionally committed to today (I want things to stay the way they are).

Leaders pave the way for people to become more emotionally committed to the mission at hand. They get their people to want to do the things that need to be done, even the tough stuff. In next month’s article, we will tell you the number one way they do it.

International Leadership Associates ©1999