As a youngster, I used to play a card game called "I Commit" (opposite), which was originally devised in the 1930s. During the game, players competed to collect sets of three cards which would enable them to ‘commit a crime’. I should add that, to redress the moral balance, they also strove to collect 'policemen' to thwart the criminal activities of their opponents! In essence, before a player could say “I commit ...”, they needed to show that they had the motive, the means and the opportunity to do so.
So what has a 1930s parlour game got to do with mobilizing commitment in 21st century organizations? Well, if people are (figuratively speaking) to say "I commit" in relation to their everyday roles and relationships at work, then they too need the motive, means and opportunity to do so.
From this perspective, the leader's role is to stimulate conversations and interactions which encourage, assist and enable people to gain the motive, means and opportunity to excel.
As with all management 'models', the danger is that what follows might appear to offer an easy answer to the complex dynamics of organizations. This is not the intention. It is only useful to the extent that it helps managers and others to make sense of the specific issues they face, by raising awareness, provoking new perspectives and suggesting otherwise unasked questions. In doing so, managers might usefully reflect on a comment made by Alfie Kohn in his book on performance management (Punished by Rewards), which resonates with the perspective set out here:
“Pay people generously and equitably. Do your best to make sure they don’t feel exploited. Then do everything in your power to help them put money out of their minds.”
The proposition is that people need three things if they are to commit to excellent performance. These are:
- the Motive to excel;
- the Means to excel; and
- the Opportunity to excel.
If any one of these three conditions is missing, there cannot be commitment. At least not in the sense described here. There may be good intentions, without the means or opportunity to deliver against them; there may be the ability to deliver, without the opportunity or desire to do so; and there may be a ‘golden opportunity’ to make a real difference, which remains unfulfilled through lack of motivation or capability. In none of these cases, though, can there be a commitment to excellence.
The aim, then, is to stimulate people’s intrinsic motivation to contribute to the best of their ability. Any such commitment to excellence is necessarily self-driven; it cannot be obtained through ‘carrot and stick’ incentives. At the same time, leaders can strive to stimulate conditions in which these motives can be more effectively mobilized and applied for business benefit. The means to excel are provided by an individual’s knowledge, skills and personal qualities. And the motivated application of these in a particular instance can only occur if the opportunity to do so is available. This requires leaders to work to break down the organizational, technological, perceptual and other barriers that inhibit performance; helping people to expand the boundaries around their jobs, to liberate their talents and to raise their performance.
Fostering the environment
Motive, means and opportunity can be thought of as the ‘primary colours’ of commitment, which blend together to produce shades that match individual needs and organizational circumstances. As illustrated in the figure, the interplay of these three elements points to key aspects of organizational dynamics that impact upon people’s commitment. In brief, these factors are:
- The content of a person’s role and, in particular, the extent to which this builds upon their strengths and preferred ways of working.
Individuals are likely to perform better where the content of their role aligns with their personal strengths and interests. To maximise contribution and commitment, the scale and scope of these roles should ideally expand over time, whilst ensuring that people’s developing capabilities keep pace with the degree of challenge that they face. Where mismatches occur, these are likely to create anxiety (high challenge – low capability), boredom (low challenge – high capability), or apathy (low challenge – low capability); all of which are dysfunctional for individuals and organizations alike.
- The context within which people work.
Commitment is more likely to flow from a work environment that is collaborative, enabling and supportive. It should also be opportunity-rich and one that values diversity, to unlock (and unblock) the full range of the organization’s talent.
- The degree of choice that people have within their work.
For commitment to be high, there should be adequate and increasing scope for self-management and genuine participation; and for the creative self-expression of individuals’ talents and motivations.
These three factors are important to bear in mind when designing organizational structures, management systems and work roles; but they are insufficient on their own to create and sustain a climate in which people have the motive, means and opportunity to excel. The following two factors are also important:
- The congruence that exists between the organization’s stated purpose and values, and people’s everyday experience of organizational life.
Commitment is likely to be undermined if people’s views of what’s going on differ from the official line. People will deduce the organization’s de facto purpose and values from their own and others' perceptions, interpretations and evaluations of everyday events; with the perceived words and observed behaviours of those in formal leadership positions - throughout the organization - having a major impact on this sensemaking process. Providing vision as part of everyday engagement - that is, helping people to see better what is going on and why, through everyday conversations and interactions - is central to achieving this sense of congruence.
- Managing the creative tension between continuity and change.
Commitment is both threatened and potentially enriched by organizational change. Leaders can help to sustain the motive, means and opportunity to excel by adopting an informal coalitions approach to the continuing challenges that emerge. This might include such things as:
- seeking to express organizational change and development themes in ways that resonate with individuals' own aims and aspirations;
- working to build coalitions of co-operative effort around these strategic themes;
- helping to embed, through their own behaviour and active participation in sensemaking conversations, cultural assumptions and behavioural patterns that enable rather than constrain people's willingness and ability to move forward;
- maintaining a sense of continuity with the past, from which people can take confidence and build their continuing contribution; and
- managing 'boundaries', to reduce anxiety and stimulate engagement with the changing demands.
By paying attention to these five factors whenever they interact with staff, leaders can foster an environment in which people have the motive, means and opportunity to excel.