Commitment: All or Nothing

People tend to talk about commitment in fractions, as though we can be partially committed to something. But the purpose of making a commitment is to let someone know that he or she can rely upon us to act a certain way.

A good example is a surgeon. We expect that, say, a heart surgeon is committed to prolonging and saving lives whenever possible. We wouldn’t want him to be wishy-washy about this as a loved one is being wheeled into the emergency room.

In our organizations, which make financial survival and growth possible, we don’t want a new hire to be anything less than fully committed either. We expect him to do the best job possible for us. In return, we promise him a steady paycheck, benefits and professional support, and he wouldn’t want us to be any less than committed to our end of the bargain.

We make all sorts of commitments on a regular basis. When we form relationships of any type, the other party is counting on us. Therefore, if we fail to communicate honestly about our commitments throughout a relationship and even—especially—if it is coming to an end, we can cause a lot of unnecessary chaos and create unworkable situations.

Why Commitment is Important
Commitment is an agreement that creates workability for both sides. If I can count on you to reliably uphold your part of our bargain, it makes me more powerful. If you fail to do so, you weaken me in some way.

Any commitment is a little selfish really. If I commit to you, I do so because it creates more workability in my life. Whether that commitment provides income, companionship or prestige, or induces you to commit back to me, there is always an exchange. We don’t commit without a reason.

Let’s make a distinction between commitments and promises. A commitment means that we can be expected to behave a certain way to further whatever it is to which we’re committed. A promise means that we agree to do something specific, such as deliver a project to a client by a certain date. An example might be a cause. If I say I am committed to a clean environment and that I strongly believe we should have cleaner water, people could reasonably expect me not to do my own oil change and dump the used oil into the sewer. For another example, if a team member is committed to treating our clients with respect, I don’t have to make him promise not to yell at them. So, commitment is about being able to set broad expectations regarding how someone will behave in furtherance of his values. People who are not committed might still be trustworthy with their promises. We just have to be very specific about what we’re asking them to do so that it is a promise. We can’t simply substitute their commitment for a process. That’s part of the power of commitment: it means that we don’t have to create elaborate promises.

When Being Uncommitted is Okay
Because commitment is an exchange of one thing for another, we can’t possibly commit to everything that is available. We simply don’t have the resources to do that. So, we have to choose the commitments that will create the most workability for us. What commitments could you make to create more workability in your life? Your employer may hope work is at the top of your list, but, for you, work may just be a means to an end so that you can support yourself and your family. That’s okay, but if you are not committed to your work, you need to be clear about that; otherwise, your team members will rely upon you for things you are not willing to deliver.

“Being uncommitted isn’t a bad thing; it just doesn’t create workability.”

It’s always okay not to be committed, but we have to be honest about it so that people will know whether they can count on us. In our professional lives, committed team members will add productivity, whereas uncommitted team members will detract from it.

In any relationship, commitment is necessary in order for the partnership to be successful. But nothing is permanent. Everything changes. It’s okay to decommit, but what is problematic is when someone says he is committed and then does not live up to the commitment. This can cause all kinds of unworkability.

People need to know where they stand in terms of commitment at all times. If we are depending on a person to behave in a way that he’s promised he will, and then he decommits without informing us, it creates an unworkable situation. It often hurts when someone withdraws his commitment from us, but sometimes worse than that is when we find out that he lied to us about it. If the other person has integrity and respects us, if he decommits, he should inform us as soon as possible, before the lack of commitment causes a whole lot of damage. If both parties are aware that the commitment has dissolved, they can each take the actions necessary to clean up any mess and move forward. I’m sure we have all seen the results of people not acting with this type of integrity in both personal and professional circumstances. We’re all grownups. If you are no longer committed to me, let me know. If I am no longer committed to you, I will let you know. Then we are clear about what we can count on and what we can’t.

A lack of clarity in commitment can also create unworkability. A lot of times people think, “I’m committed to you, so you must be committed to me.” But the reality is that the other person could be committed to something else. We can’t automatically assume that the commitment is symmetrical. Asymmetry is not bad—I could never expect my young children to be as committed to me as I am to them—but if I assume a relationship is symmetrical, then it can become unworkable.

“A commitment is most workable when we are clear about to what each party is committed.”

Why We’re Dishonest About Commitment
Admitting that we’re not committed to something to which we’ve pledged our allegiance is a difficult thing to do, though it is the most workable course of action. We don’t want to feel bad about ourselves, or hurt the other person’s feelings. However, we are playing an unfair game if we fail to be honest about where we stand in terms of commitment. There is no gray area, not in an emergency room, not at work and not anywhere else. We are either committed or we’re not.

Being committed implies that we can be relied upon to behave in a certain way. Therefore, we can either be counted upon or we cannot be counted upon.

That’s the reality. We are either loyal or disloyal, dedicated or not dedicated. No one who has ever truly committed himself to something or someone can deny the truth of this. Partial commitment is a fallacy. It simply does not exist.

A commitment can be false at the outset, or perhaps we were once committed, but, for whatever reason, we’re just not anymore. People tend to hide their lack of loyalty to avoid discomfort. Sometimes, when their lack of commitment is discovered, it may cause far greater issues than being honest could have ever done.

Communicating About Commitment
If we pay attention to language, we can see that team members who are no longer dedicated to us speak in shades of commitment. “I’m kind of committed,” someone might say, shifting in his seat, “but I’d be more committed if certain circumstances were in place.” Maybe he hates his supervisor or doesn’t feel appreciated or doesn’t like his company car or thinks he should have gotten a better raise this year…whatever the situation, it’s troubling him and undermining his commitment. He’s too afraid to come right out and say it, but his language reflects his shadowy dedication. If we understand that commitment is an all or nothing thing, a huge warning light will go off in our heads when someone couches his decommitment in hazy language.

I was recently discussing a team member with one of my managers. I asked about her commitment to the organization’s mission, values and well-being. She said, “Well, I think she’s committed, but she’s troubled by it. What I got out of that was, “Don’t expect her to act like she’s committed” Because if there’s any equivocation whatsoever, then you don’t have a commitment. All of these different shades that people create about commitment mean that the person is simply not committed. We have to be aware of this, and we have to pay attention to changes in people, as they may no longer be committed to something they once were.

People split hairs on this subject because they’re afraid of what it means to not be committed, or they might be afraid of reprisals for not being committed. Instead, they attempt to disfigure the meaning of the word “commitment.” When we ask someone if they are committed, the answer is either yes or no.

We should expect nothing less. If we’re serious about our part of the relationship, there can be no middle ground.

“Treat every “partial” commitment as though there were no commitment.”

Any discussion about commitment can be infused with more honesty by making it clear that it’s okay if the other person is not committed or wants to decommit. In an organization, we can explain that it’s just not workable for a team member to be employed and to not be committed. In any relationship, it’s just the mature thing to do. It’s really about respect and integrity. If the other person is not committed, he needs to let us know that. What is the point of employing someone who tells us that he is only partially committed? It simply doesn’t create any real value for us because we know he can’t be counted upon. Then, of course, there’s always the possibility that someone is fully committed…but just not to us. That would be an important thing to discover!

In my organization, one of my commitments is to continue to help my team members thrive. In order for us to have a workable relationship, they expect me to give them good, prompt feedback about what is and isn’t going well. Since I’m committed to them, they can count on me to act in furtherance of that commitment and not sabotage them in any way. If I tell a team member that I’m not committed to working with him anymore and that he should therefore seek other employment, then he won’t have the expectation anymore that I’m going to give him valuable feedback to improve the workability of our relationship. Likewise, if that team member tells me that he is no longer committed to the organization’s mission, values and well-being, I have no reason to expect that he’s going to act in furtherance of that commitment.

When someone decommits from an organization’s mission, values and well-being, it doesn’t make him a bad person or untrustworthy. It just means that he’s not creating the same workability as if he were committed. His usefulness is limited to what he is willing to promise. If there are too many people who are not creating value in an organization, it can’t be powerful, and terminations will naturally occur. That doesn’t mean these people should be demonized, though. There’s no need to judge them personally. That doesn’t help anyone. Furthermore, they might still provide some usefulness while they are being paid, such as making a smooth transition of their assignments. We just have to realize that we can’t expect these uncommitted team members to live up to their former commitment. Rather, we have to switch to making very specific requests of them.

We can use our understanding of the language surrounding decommitment to form a fresh relationship based on realistic expectations. Any situation can still be made workable by discovering to what a person is now committed, even if it’s just ending a relationship and being willing to do it smoothly.


© 2012 Ralph Dandrea. All rights reserved.

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