Making clear commitments and having regular discussions about accountability is a hallmark of every successful organization and, outside of work, every successful relationship.
In this episode, Peter covers how to make a commitment with integrity, how to honorably break or renegotiate a commitment when necessary, and how to have effective conversations about accountability.
Links from this episode
Fred Kofman’s book Conscious Business
Chris Avery’s Responsibility Process
Welcome to the Humanizing Work Show. In today’s episode, we’re going to look at something almost everyone struggles with, and that’s how to make clear commitments. Without clear commitments, we don’t know what to expect from each other, how we can help each other, or what we should do if something goes wrong. Without clear commitments, there can’t be any accountability. Without clear commitments, when something goes wrong, we tend to make up stories about how and why the other person is dropping the ball, slacking off, or is just not an A player. While those stories may have a kernel of truth to them in some cases, the vast majority of the time they’re not true. We just never got clear on our commitments.
In today’s episode, we’ll clarify what a commitment is and what it isn’t, including the three categories of commitments. Next, we’ll describe how to make a commitment with integrity, and how to honorably break or renegotiate a commitment. Finally, we’ll describe how to have effective conversations about accountability.
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Let’s start by defining what a commitment is and what it’s not.
[ Scene from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya]
Like many terms, the word commitment is polysemic, which describes a word that has different meanings for different people. When a word has many meanings, I like to look at its etymology, where the word came from, to see if that informs how I think about it. The etymology of “commitment” has Latin roots: “com,” meaning together, and “mittere,” meaning go out, or to send. The English word “mission” has the same root as “mittere.” Over time, the term took on the meaning of a pledge, or a promise; to join oneself to a mission or to an outcome. In a business context, a commitment is a pledge or a promise.
Let’s also clarify what a commitment is NOT. First, it’s not a guarantee. Since there is uncertainty in most situations, things we can’t predict, a commitment is not a guarantee. It is a pledge to do everything in our power to reach that outcome, but that’s different from a guarantee.
Second, a commitment is not something you can make on behalf of others. The boss can’t commit the team to do something, for example. The boss can only commit to what they will do, like making priorities clear, ensuring the team has the capacity to do the work, and improving the system to make a good outcome more likely. They can also commit to reaching out to the team to see if the team is willing to commit, and to communicate that commitment back up the chain.
This brings us to the three categories of commitments, which are Actions, Outcomes, and Ethics. Actions are tasks you commit to do. Outcomes are a bit fuzzier and riskier, they’re WHY you are doing the tasks. Ethics are HOW you’ll behave. Let’s illustrate these three categories using an example that almost all of us can relate to. These days, almost every company has a website, and they of course want their website to perform well. Let’s look at the three categories of commitments for someone who is trying to make a website perform better.
A commitment to an action might be “I will update the home page to point to all of the products and services we currently offer.” This narrows the commitment to specifically what you’ll do, making it a little safer that you’ll be able to honor the commitment.
A commitment to an outcome might be “I will increase the conversion rate from 2% to 4%”. This makes the commitment a bit riskier, since you probably don’t know exactly what you’ll need to do to achieve that outcome, but it’s also more meaningful since even if you did the “action” in the first example, of updating the home page, that still might not lead to an outcome that matters.
A commitment related to ethics might be, “While improving the website, I will not use any misleading information or hard sale tactics.” This is a “how” commitment related to the company’s ethics.
Another ethics related example might be “While improving the website, I will be honest and open when I get stuck and I will solicit and include my teammate’s opinions about the best way to improve.” This is a “how” commitment related to how you and the team interact.
So, the first way to get clearer about commitments, is to be clear whether you’re committing to actions, outcomes, ethics, or some combination of the three.
Now, let’s talk about how to make a commitment with integrity. In Fred Kofman’s great book Conscious Business, which we’ll link to in the show notes, he says that to make a commitment with integrity, you need to have four things: clarity, a plan, willingness, and a plan for what you’ll do if something goes wrong. A bit more detail on each of these:
First, are you clear on what is expected? Is this an action, an outcome, a way of behaving, or some combination? When is it expected by? If someone asks you to make a commitment and you are not perfectly clear on the expectations, you need to ask questions and state back what you are hearing to make sure you’re aligned.
Second, do you have a plan for how you will reach the commitment? Do you have time to do it? Do you have the skills and resources needed to do it? Have you looked at your calendar and puzzled out what steps you will take on which days to reach the commitment?
Third, do you really want to do it? Can you move from obligation to responsibility, using Chris Avery’s Responsibility Process (which we’ll link to in the show notes); or are you just making the commitment to accommodate someone else, to be nice, comply, or feel like you belong?
Fourth is to prepare to fail safely. If something does go wrong, what will you do? Part of this will be keeping track of your own progress so you know if things are going off track. The other part is to decide ahead of time what you will do if, to slightly alter the Mike Tyson quote, your “strategy to meet the commitment gets punched in the mouth.” How will you honorably break or renegotiate the commitment?
Now, that might sound a bit off, the idea of honorably breaking a commitment. But remember, a commitment isn’t a guarantee, in life, things happen. So what should we do when things go wrong?
To honorably break a commitment, you need to immediately communicate with the person you committed to that you are off track, you are no longer confident you can do what you committed to do. Apologize, even explain what happened that messed up your plan, if you can do that in a way that doesn’t come off as just rationalizing. Then, discuss what to do next. Given where we are today, what can you commit to now? Can you narrow the scope of the commitment? Maybe renegotiate the timeline? Is there anything you need from the other person to help you get back on track? Then, make a new commitment for what you can do. This time, you’ll be a little bit wiser on what you can honorably commit to. Or maybe, the fact is that you can no longer make a commitment to that person. If that’s the case, be honest, and accept the consequences. In my experience, being honest about how things are going even when they’re not going well is much more likely to build trust than hiding the facts, procrastinating on your accountability, or letting the person down at the last minute.
Now, honorably breaking or renegotiating a commitment is an example of accountability. If you have made a commitment, it is your responsibility to account for how that commitment is going while you’re working on it, or how it has gone if either you’ve completed the commitment, or the timeframe is up. We’ve already talked about what to do if things are going wrong. On the other hand, if you’ve met the commitment, get back to the person and let them know! It’s one of the best ways to build trust: say you’ll do a thing, do it, then say you did it. The more you can repeat that cycle, the stronger the trust you can build.
Now, what if you’re on the other side of the conversation, and someone has made a commitment to you? If you helped ensure that the commitment was made with integrity, meaning it was clear, they had a plan, they really wanted to do it, and they had a plan for what to do if things got off track, accountability conversations are much easier to have. You can check in with the person on some regular basis to see how things are going, if it’s a longer commitment, or if you already have built some trust, you might just check with them when the commitment is coming due. If something has gone wrong, be ready to renegotiate, which might include things you could do to help the person be successful in reaching the commitment.
Making clear commitments and having regular discussions about accountability is a hallmark of every successful organization and, outside of work, every successful relationship. Using the ideas from this episode will help you be more successful at work and in your personal life. If you have any fuzzy commitments that are lingering over your head, go clarify them. If you need to renegotiate a commitment that has gone off the rails, have the conversation! Doing these things will help you build trust and increase your ability to succeed at work and in life.
Thanks for listening!