How a commitment conversation can make all the difference


Posted by Carolyn Taylor - 13 November, 2013


There's a moment which underpins good Achievement Culture: The Moment of Commitment.

How a commitment conversation can make all the difference

Delivery of results is a process that starts with the setting of a goal and ends with the applying of consequences (good or bad). A lot of focus is often placed on the latter part of this process – whether people are performing and how they should be rewarded. We've found most leaders spend a lot less time on the front end of the process–actually getting clear commitment to the right goals. So many performance issues can stem from the way the ‘front end’ is managed.

Be accountable...

Accountability is a contract between two people. One delivers something to the other, who then holds them to account in exchange for money, or other reward, assigning stewardship of resources to enable delivery. Playing on the word accountability, the interaction is one of: “Can I count on you?" "You can count on me”.

The manner in which this contract is negotiated plays a big part in the likelihood that it'll be achieved. It's best done through a ‘commitment conversation’. These can be used successfully for:

• Annual financial targets and plans
• Date-specific delivery (e.g. project implementation)
• Activities to be completed (e.g. take action on a non-performer)

The ideal outcome is when:

• A true commitment is made – the individual gives their word and means it.
• The figure/date/deliverable is something both parties are happy with.
• Good risk anticipation and mitigation has increased the optimum balance between stretch and achievability.
• Doubts have been expressed and resolved.
• Your direct report or colleague feels confident they can give their word: "you can count on me," and you feel confident they've done the prep work to ensure they'll deliver.
More frequently, however, we've found one of the following occurs. Have any of these happened to you?

1. Numbers are produced by finance and presented in documents, but at the individual level a leader does not feel personally committed to delivering a number and has already in their mind set up reasonable reasons why these will not be achieved.

2. No explicit 1-on-1 conversation is held to discuss what both parties think is an achievable number or deadline – "Can I count on you?"

3. Deadlines and other commitments are made and accepted without sufficient risk anticipation and mitigation occurring.

4. Intentions are confused with promises – "I’ll try."

5. Factors that might cause non-performance are not sufficiently discussed, and then are given later as justifications. For example, do you expect your team to have contingency plans in place for if a competitor slashes prices, or will this be an acceptable reason for non-performance?

6. Factors which are outside of the individual’s control are taken credit for when they are favourable but accepted as excuses when they are unfavourable. e.g. market changes, or contributions from other parts of the matrix.

7. People are told what to deliver and don't feel safe to question for fear of not being seen as good enough.

8. When someone does question the achievability of a goal, the leader doesn't use it as an opportunity to have an open, enquiring, coaching-style conversation.

9. One person (the boss) believes that a commitment was made, but the other person didn't hear or understand what was being asked.

10. Details which become crucial later—such as a shared way of measuring whether the goal was delivered—are not clarified up front.

11. Teams sign up for goals, but individuals aren't clear on what they have personally signed up to contribute. Shared KPIs blur accountability. At its worse, there's avoidance or blame.
The more time is spent in honest, engaging, challenging, listening conversations at the start of the ‘accountability contract’, the more these issues are resolved. When your people make a true commitment, the later parts of the accountability contract become much easier:

• Both parties are clear what's been committed to. No previous time wasted in debating it, nor how it will be measured.
• The individual’s sense of honour kicks in because they've truly owned the commitment.
• It's easier to refer back to the commitment and enquire on progress or raise concerns.
• It's easier to counteract that ‘reasonable reasons’ or justifications people may give when the deliverable is looking hard to deliver.
How do your commitment conversations happen now? Are there ways to improve your approach?
Image credit: 'Conversation in Black & White,' by Dimitris Papazimouris. 'That Was Easy' by Joe Popp. Both via Creative Commons.


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Topics: Carolyn Taylor, Leadership, Accountability, Achievement, Communication

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