The Anatomy of a Commitment

“A leader who does not confront broken commitments encourages polite complacency.” – Fred Kofman

Most of us know what it’s like when agreements aren’t met. This happens when timelines are ignored, plans change but are not communicated, or people who said they will do something then ghost you. When this happens at the office, trust is eroded and execution can grind to a halt. Products don’t ship, the company doesn’t meet goals, stakeholders get miffed, and hard conversations may be in order. When people organize around a mission and a set of tasks such as we do in our organizations, trust and dependability become the grease in the machine of a well-honed workplace. When we fail to uphold our commitments, we put much at risk. 

How do we stay coordinated in our work together? What agreements do we make and keep to each other and our efforts towards a common goal? 

Clear commitments are a key part of accountability. When a clear commitment is made, there’s an agreement between or amongst people around what needs to be done, by when, and by whom. As the person committing to a task, we can’t rely solely on other people to hold us accountable when we make a commitment. They can hold us accountable and impose consequences, but the commitment starts with our internal commitment to the task at hand. We put ourselves in the game when we take responsibility to show up for others (the team, the company, the project) and hold up our end of the bargain. We personally carry the weight of responsibility to deliver on our commitments.

A trail of broken commitments leads to breakdowns in trust and in culture. So, just what are commitments exactly? How does one make them? How do we maintain them? 

In this Podcast Extra conversation, my colleagues Jeff Riddle and Andy Crissinger talk about making commitments and why they are so important especially now while we are virtually working together. 

They outline the steps for making a request that can turn into a commitment:

  1. Speak in ‘I’ terms. Such as, “I would like you….” Ask from yourself, versus the ambiguity of “we,” and be direct. 
  2. Explicitly ask for [the thing you need].
  3. Determine who owns this. Direct the ask to one person responsible for the request.
  4. Set the conditions for satisfaction and completion. What does a successful outcome and timeline look like? 
  5. Be clear and specific. Leave no room for ambiguity. Make plenty of room for asking clarifying questions. 

When someone makes a request of you, how can you respond? There are four basic responses: 

  • Ask for clarification.
  • Counter offer and negotiate the terms and timeframe. 
  • Openly decline.
  • Accept the request as is. 

If a request is being asked of you, here are some questions to ask yourself so that you can formulate clarifying questions or negotiate timelines appropriately so that you can feel comfortable delivering on the commitment you’re about to make: 

  • Do I understand what the other person is asking of me
  • Do I have the skills and resources to do it?
  • Am I convinced the people I’m going to depend on will deliver for me? 
  • Am I willing to be held accountable for hanging in there, navigating the breakdowns, and seeing this thing through?

What happens if I commit to something and things are not going as planned? The golden moment in maintaining commitments is to amend the commitment if you’ve made a commitment you’re not going to be able to deliver on. This means communicating what part of the commitment needs more time, needs a new plan, needs resources, and ultimately revising the original commitment or making a new one with all the stakeholders who are depending on you to deliver on that commitment. Ghosting at this point is poor agreement hygiene! This moment of re-commitment communication is gold. And, it’s best to have this conversation as early as is needed. 

Making and maintaining a commitment is good communication hygiene.  On both sides of the table, it requires us to summon the candor to make a request and respond to the ask. It requires us to ask good questions, to set context and expectations. It requires that we have and state a clear yes or a clear no. Ultimately, it requires us to deliver on our word. (Just these things alone can be challenging for individuals, so while the anatomy of making a commitment is quite simple, doing so requires our best adult selves at the helm.)

My partner Khalid often touted that trust consists of three parts: competency, sincerity, and reliability. We need to know that someone can do the thing, is genuine when they say they will do the thing, and has consistently done things and done them well. Without any one of these three components, we doubt whether we can trust someone. Making and keeping commitments builds these qualities so that others can trust us. 

People who follow through on commitments bolsters the trust we have in our environment. This in turn creates a sense of psychological safety that can help us each settle in and do our best work.