The Commitment Conversation

The commitment conversation is the first of three critical conversations for supervisors to have with team members and prospective hires. It is intended to give supervisors the benefit of knowing the commitment level of each team member at any given time, while in exchange rewarding those team members for their honesty and candidness.

A company is essentially a commitment machine. It achieves its goals when everyone works toward the same mission, vision, and values.

Why We Need the Commitment Conversation
The commitment conversation provides clarity about the status of team members’ dedication to our organization. A lack of clarity can create anxiety and surprise, which leads to unworkable situations. With an honest discussion, we can avoid surprising scenarios, such as the abrupt departure of a key player, which can result in anything from a week of anxiety to a mismanaged client to a devastating blow to a project. Why put ourselves and everyone else in such a position when simply being clear and truthful about where we stand will produce workability? This is a conversation about integrity as to how we conduct ourselves, treat our coworkers, and ensure that our clients are not affected by our personal choices. It is a way of raising the bar on commitment within organizations.

Most companies hire team members and assume that they are committed…until they’re not. The evidence of their defection usually arrives in the form of a letter of resignation. That certainly says they’re not committed. Between the time when they took the job and when their supervisor received their two-weeks’ notice, we might have wondered whether they were committed, but we didn’t know for sure until they quit. Wouldn’t it be a better idea to discuss our concerns when we see clues that a team member may not be happy working at our organization?

People are so afraid to talk about commitment, but these types of conversations can pave the way to better relationships and even better departures.

There are clear advantages to having frequent discussions with team members about their level of work satisfaction. Ask them specific questions about whether they’re enjoying their work, whether they’re feeling committed to it, and if there is any reason they might want to look elsewhere, and they’ll usually say that they’re happy and that things are going great. If a team member, citing boredom, mentions maybe going back to school, that could be the beginning of the decommitment process, and we can be glad that we won’t be surprised by it. In the past, we’ve had a team member give us notice on a Tuesday that his new job started the following Monday. That resulted in a lot of chaos for his team members, as well as a loss of dignity that prevents him from contacting any one of us to this day, even if we could be of help in his new career.

When I have this conversation with team members who show that they are committed to the organization, I always ask if there is anything getting in the way of feeling good about what they’re doing now. I focus on making sure that they have opportunities to grow. On the other hand, when someone is presenting evidence of being uncommitted, then I have a more serious conversation about what can be done about it. If I’m interested in making sure that I retain that team member, then I’ll get a little more in depth, maybe even considering if there is a possibility for creating an opportunity at ITX that would be more satisfying. If the team member’s desires can’t be fulfilled here, I accept that and thank the individual for letting me know that there is no longer a commitment. I also ask the team member to keep me updated about the job search and to let me know if I can help with a recommendation upon finding the ideal position. This lays the groundwork for being able to transition the team member’s responsibilities while maintaining a positive, productive atmosphere. There are no hard feelings because we’ve been straight with each other. Now, we can plan for the departure by getting everything organized and transferred to somebody else. I also let departing team members know that if they change their mind and decide to stay, they will be welcomed to recommit.

By having this conversation, we gain an understanding of what’s going on with our team members. It is a failure when a supervisor is surprised by a couple weeks’ notice from a team member. It means that the supervisor hasn’t communicated very well, and it creates a fire drill for the other team members and a risk for the clients they serve.

The goals of the commitment conversation are to protect the organization and to acknowledge the fluidity of individual career paths. It imbues our relationships with more understanding, support, and respect. It is not intended in any way to make people do anything that they otherwise wouldn’t do, to change their minds, or to try to make them be more committed. We are only attempting to obtain and maintain transparency about each team member’s dedication to the organization, and in return, we will provide an opportunity to thrive within a transparent environment and resolve any concerns.

The commitment conversation helps us to be honest and open about the state of our relationships so that we can make them as workable as possible and have integrity from beginning to end.

What it Looks Like
We structure the commitment conversation so that each side knows what to expect from the other. In order for the commitment conversation to work, we have to be willing to ask both sides to do something uncomfortable, something that rises above the usual bar. In order to set the bar higher, it can’t be one-sided, which is the norm for most organizations.

Once we ascertain that team members are committed, they are expected to make the organization’s goals their own. The second thing we expect is for them to let us know if they are ever no longer committed. The goal is not to make team members committed if they aren’t; it’s to provide clarity by having them tell us when they’re feeling less so. They are asked to inform the supervisor if they are decommitted before taking any action, such as calling back a recruiter or logging onto a job search website. Then we have the opportunity to encourage them to recommit by resolving their concerns. At the least, they will have the chance to exit with dignity, while we ensure continuity for the sake of our clients and other team members. We also ask that team members give us four weeks’ notice and supervisors, six weeks’. Rarely is it all needed, but it gives us the time to ensure that everything is running smoothly before the actual transition occurs. With advance notice, we can usually get coverage for a position quickly enough to reduce the amount of time we need before team members start a new job. In this way, the team members have done the right thing by committing to us every day of their employment before recommitting to another company who will surely be as happy as we were to have team members with such integrity.

Supervisors, for their part, promise to provide confidentiality, no repercussions, and a good reference upon learning that a team member is moving on. Further, the supervisor and the team member will agree about with whom the information will be shared in order to appropriately plan and/or work to resolve the team member’s concerns.

Another promise of the supervisors is transparency, in that they will provide clear and constant feedback about how team members are doing, and give them the chance to fix any problems. It will certainly be uncomfortable for supervisors sometimes, but with this conversation, they are agreeing to inform team members right away if something needs to be improved—Team members aren’t going to have to guess about how their performance is being perceived.

Perhaps the biggest challenge on the supervisor’s part is handling the team member’s concerns—not just listening to them placatingly, but actually taking care of them.

It is the supervisor’s job, with this commitment, to work every concern that troubles the team member about the organization, coworkers, clients, and anything else job-related.

If the team member has an issue working with a particular department, it’s the supervisor’s job to get that fixed, rather than ask the team member to just deal with it. If the team member is worried about career advancement, it’s the supervisor’s job to make sure the team member has a career plan. If the team member feels underpaid, it’s the supervisor’s job to make sure that the team member is being paid fairly and to lay out opportunities for growth and increased earnings. This commitment comes with the full realization that the supervisor may be put in some uncomfortable situations but will still go to bat for subordinates. This is a lot different from the traditional way of doing things wherein the supervisor says, “Let me know if you have any problems.” That’s not committing to anything. With the commitment conversation, supervisors are promising to be the trusted resource who will resolve any on-the-job concerns; Supervisors aren’t doing their job if they’re not aware of their team members’ concerns, don’t actively seek out those concerns, or don’t expeditiously handle those concerns. That’s the commitment.

The supervisor is agreeing to all of this responsibility in recognition of the extra commitment we are asking of team members. In exchange for their honesty about their commitment, supervisors will take team members’ success into their own hands and make sure that this is the place where they want to be. This extends to the final promise, which is that supervisors will include team members in any decisions that will impact them, whenever possible.

The conversation only works if we make each team member important to the organization, team members, and clients. When that is understood as the goal, it becomes obvious: “Of course, we need to have this conversation. Of course, we want clarity, because I’m important to all these people. It doesn’t mean I can’t leave; it just means that I must be clear so that I don’t hurt anybody.”

It is crucial to the process that this be an authentic, intimate conversation, one-on-one, between the supervisor and the subordinate.

The supervisor can’t be reading cue cards or a print-out. It must be the supervisor’s own conversation and own words, an authentic communication between two people who need to be able to count on each other.

Putting it to Work
When people decommit, we can either address their issues and let them recommit, or help them leave with dignity. I had a team member who loved our organization but wanted to work in an area that we didn’t need. The commitment conversation worked really well because she told me that she wasn’t happy with her position and said she thought I needed to hire someone else to do her job passionately. Though I truly valued her as a team member and liked her personally, we simply had no need to create a position that would fulfill her career goals. She agreed that she would look for another job and help me find her replacement, which she did. I agreed to give her a good reference, which I did, and she found a job doing what she wanted with a great company. She got the position; I got continuity. Because we were transparent and treated each other with respect, we still have a relationship today. It didn’t have to get terminated because she left. She can come visit with us at any time, hold her head up high, and still enjoy the camaraderie that she had with all of ITX’s team members.

One of the keys to implementing this tool successfully is to not take decommitment personally. That’s precisely why most people won’t be transparent about their feelings. They’re afraid that they’ll look bad and that their supervisor will take it to heart. We have to convince people that we’re not going to take it personally. We don’t expect them to work at ITX until they die. People’s desires, needs, and goals change in life, and that might mean that someone will be with us for 3, 5, 10, or 30 years, but it could change at any time. The commitment conversation is not about making people commit for longer periods of time or keeping them from leaving; it’s about making relationships more workable. A commitment conversation simply apprises us of each other’s expectations.

I don’t expect team members to stay any longer than they want to at ITX, and I don’t expect them to promise me anything that they don’t want to promise. I would just like for each person to be honest about commitment or the lack of it. If you’re mad at your supervisor and want to leave, what’s wrong with saying that? Make it clear that you’re mad and that you don’t like it here anymore. Make it clear that you’re going to look for a new job this weekend, if that’s the truth. Why be afraid to do that? By being honest, by putting your chips down on the table, it may force us to fix the problem so that you don’t want to leave. Or you’ll find another job, but we’ll get more time to straighten things out on our end.

Caveat Emptor
Hopefully, it seems as strange to you as it does to me that someone would be dishonest about commitment. I believe it is much better to be honest about our feelings and hold our team members in high enough regard not to be secretive about a lack of commitment. It never looks good when someone gets caught or makes a hasty departure. Unfortunately, most subordinate/supervisor relationships are not handled with integrity. People will say that they’re committed when they’re not, and they will justify it because they don’t take responsibility for the expectations of others. Being out of integrity is the norm in a business situation, so it’s hard to convince people to do it a different way.

To put it plainly, people will lie. They’ll lie like crazy because they’re uncomfortable or just because they can get away with it. You’ll have the commitment conversation with someone who will lie to your face. You’ll have the conversation with someone who will be honest and say that they are committed, but then they’ll decommit, choose not to keep their word, and give you one week’s notice. We’ve even had people just not show up one day. But just because some people will lie to you doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have the commitment conversation. Don’t take it personally. It’s not about you; it’s about their discomfort with themselves. There will be plenty of other individuals who will be completely honest about their level of dedication at all times, and those are the ones we want to retain and nurture in our organization.

Since implementing the commitment conversation, we’ve seen it go both ways. If we set the bar low enough so that everyone can jump over it, we’re not playing a big game. We’ve got to keep raising the bar, and it’s up to each organization to figure out how much to raise it for the particular environment. Organizations that don’t have the commitment conversation aren’t raising the bar at all. The examples above are how we raise the bar at ITX, but they may not be how you want to raise the bar at your company. Once you set your bar, accept that not everyone is going to make the jump. Experiment a little, like we did, and figure out where the right place is to raise the bar. Of course, you don’t want everybody failing because it’s too hard and unreasonable, but you do want to raise it to a level that brings an incredible amount of workability to the organization. It’s about smooth transitions, and smooth transitions come from workability. So, we realize that where the bar is currently set is not workable, such as people just coming in and announcing that they’re leaving in a week, nor is it reasonable to ask team members to sign commitments with penalty clauses if they leave before 10 years of employment. We can’t go overboard. But we can raise the bar to the right level where most of our team members are going to be able to rise to the challenge. This creates a level of workability in the organization that didn’t exist before, and people will enjoy being a part of the organization more because their concerns are being met. If we don’t raise the bar for fear that some people won’t rise to meet it, then none will.

With the same spirit of reciprocity that imbues the commitment conversation, I want to address where some supervisors have failed in implementing it. Just because some supervisors are good at having the commitment conversation with their supervisors doesn’t mean that they are going to be good at having it with their own people. In our experience, supervisors had varying degrees of success. Some did a fantastic job. Others watered down the commitment on their part. They simply didn’t take it seriously that it is their job to work their team members’ concerns. We had to address that by installing a way of verifying the conversation’s success, so now we have human resources perform interviews with supervisors and their people as a way of coaching. They ask, “How was it done? What’s the feedback about it? Was it done well? Is there the level of understanding that we want? Does the conversation exist, if you will? Now that we’ve covered the minor pitfalls we’ve encountered and the remedies for them, I hope you will raise the bar at your own organization by implementing the commitment conversation. Follow it with the values conversation, then with the ongoing performance conversations to achieve a high level of adherence to your organization’s missions, visions, and values.

Revised September 12, 2012
© 2011 Ralph Dandrea. All rights reserved.

Anatomy of a Commitment Conversation

Why We Need It
• Provides clarity, which eliminates anxiety and surprise
• Makes it clear what is expected from each team member
• Lets team members understand their importance and how their leaving impacts the organization

ITX Promises
• Monthly performance conversation
• Opportunity to cure performance issues
• Great place to work
o Benefits
o Participation
o Being surrounded by high performers

Team Member Promises
• Behave consistently with mission, vision and values by making them their own
• Be honest (authentic) when no longer committed
• Be clear and honest about where they stand with organization
o Don’t say “fine” when it isn’t.
o Make sure supervisor knows what is going right so they can do more of it.
o Understand that the supervisor’s job is to deal with the subordinate’s concerns, even little ones.
• Before taking any positive step (contacting a recruiter, meeting a potential employer), tell us.
o Will be kept confidential; information will only be shared by mutual consent
o Organization will give good reference even before departure
• Minimum four weeks’ notice; six weeks’ notice for supervisors
o Work together to minimize time if given advance notice


© 2012 Ralph Dandrea. All rights reserved.

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