Why Leaders Need to Ask, “Is that a Promise?”

Mobilize teamwork and execution by asking for commitment

Mobilize teamwork and execution by asking for commitment.

In today’s complex organizations, where managers must rely on others to take initiative and be accountable, one honest commitment is more valuable than all the lip service in the world. Yet many leaders are surprisingly sloppy when it comes to asking for commitments from others. They either accept ambiguity that leaves their teams with unclear agreements and conflicting priorities, or they do the work to lay out a vision and a plan and then fail to ask others to commit to making it happen.

I examine the costs of this ambiguity in my most recent post in strategy + business, “Why Leaders Need to Ask, ‘Is that a Promise?’” and offer ideas for negotiating clear, strong commitments.

Here’s a brief synopsis:
Open conversations about commitments are an essential part of a culture of responsibility, ownership, and accountability. In his 2012 Babson College case study, professor Jay Rao studied the secrets behind W.L. Gore’s 50-plus years of profitability, its reputation for being among Fortune’s best companies to work for, and its repeated awards for being one of the world’s innovative companies. He found that W.L. Gore focuses on voluntary “self-commitments” rather than assigned tasks. “Only the associate could make a commitment to do something—a task, a project, or a new role,” Rao wrote. He found the result was greater accountability. “…once someone said, ‘I will do this,’ it was considered a near-sacred oath.”

Rao’s research underscores this: Commitment is always a personal choice. When you make a request for someone’s commitment, you acknowledge their freedom to choose. You also offer them an opportunity to take real responsibility.

Consider this scenario: A leader who has been struggling to mobilize his team around a new sales strategy finally asks his team to spend 50 percent of their time on long-term sales. “Are you ready to take that step?” he asks. His directness brings the conference room to life. “We would need more coaching,” say several account representatives. “That’s fine,” responds the leader. “Let’s schedule a few sessions later this month. Once you have that coaching, will you put the new strategy into practice?” Around the table, his team replies yes. As this leader has learned, until there is a clear proposition people can say yes to, all discussion of visions, plans, and priorities is hypothetical.

There is one giant caveat when using this approach. If you want real ownership, you need to create space for people to say no to commitments they cannot keep, and to propose their own solutions. For example, a top performer might tell the leader, “I don’t know if I can do 50 percent. I might lose some sales in the current quarter. But I can commit to 30 percent now, and will check in again in a month to see if I can raise it.” While 30 percent falls short of the request the leader made, the top performer’s honest consideration and commitment creates an environment where people can prioritize and follow through.

Leaders who make and request commitments clearly, listen to what others need, and follow through are much more effective in mobilizing commitment in others and adapting to change as it unfolds. By mastering these practices, leaders can minimize bureaucracy and complexity while maximizing the teamwork that gets things done.

What are your thoughts? Are you and your team clear about your commitments? How much more agile and effective could you be by asking the question, “Is that a promise?”

Please feel free to share your comments here, or at strategy+business, where you can view the complete article.

All the best,

Elizabeth Doty

This post is adapted with permission from an article published by Elizabeth Doty in strategy+business entitled “Why Leaders Need to Ask, ‘Is That a Promise?’”

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