Thursday, April 9, 2009

How Leaders Gain and Maintain Commitment in Tough Times

CommitmentRingsj0439253To achieve a goal during difficult times, leaders need employees committed to reaching the goal. The word commit actually comes from the word Latin committere, “to connect.” Where there is no commitment there is no connection to the goal.

How do you know when someone is committed? (I said it is committed, not should be committed!) Here’s a clue: psychologists measure commitment by the steps taken in the face of adversity. Because achieving goals is filled with many obstacles these days, the true measure of your leadership is what is done when your team encounters obstacles. Listed below are four of the many ways to gain and maintain commitment to your goals during tough times.

Four Ways to Gain and Maintain Commitment

I. Involvement

II. Authority

III. Competition

IV. Expectancy

I. Increase Involvement

I used to think that I needed to have all the answers when I was an executive at UCLA. My perception began to change when I was asked to be course director for an international symposia. This ambitious goal required involvement of many of our over-worked staff and faculty. It became clear from the very start that the more I involved people, the more excited they became about the symposia. The meeting turned out to be a huge success and provided a valuable lesson about leadership - increasing involvement increases commitment.

This was also the conclusion of Professors Alex Bryson and Michael White from the London School of Economics and Political Science. (1) They surveyed 22,451 employees in 2,295 organizations on a wide variety of high-performance workplace practices. They found that the most effective approach to increasing commitment was increasing an employee involvement, especially in decision-making.

II. Demonstrate authority

The trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann began in the spring of 1961 in Jerusalem. Three months later, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram devised the experiments to answer this question: How could Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust say that they were “just following orders?”

Milgram set up a simple experiment to see how much pain a person would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an authority figure, in this case, an experimental scientist. The answer: A LOT! The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of a perceived authority constitutes the chief finding of this classic study. (2)

Notice that the person must be perceived as a legitimate authority. Your followers will perceive you as a legitimate authority when you are supportive, trustworthy, likable, knowledgeable, and provide convincing rationale for the goal.

III. Create competition

Comparing your team’s performance to others’ is another way of increasing commitment to a goal. One of the reasons competition increases commitment is that our brain is wired to compare our successes and failures to those of the people around us. (3) Researchers at the University of Minnesota used skin conductance to measure the emotional arousal of volunteers as they played a lottery game either alone or with a partner. The investigators discovered that the subjects’ emotions were much more intense when they compared their winnings or losses with those of the peer, as compared to their emotions when they played alone.

You can promote competition as a form of motivation by giving the team feedback in relation to group norms, posting scores so everyone can compare their performance with others, reminding the team what the competition in the market is up to, and so forth. Your team will be more committed because they’ll be trying to “keep up with the Joneses?”

IV. Expect the best

Pygmalion was a sculptor in Greek mythology who carved a lifelike ivory statue of a beautiful woman. He came to love his statue and treated it as if it were alive. During a festival, the Greek god Venus heard Pygmalion's heartfelt prayers, and turned his statue into a living woman. His expectations were fulfilled.

Professors Rosenthal and Rubin reviewed 345 separate studies on this Pygmalion effect (also referred to as the self-fulfilling prophecy). They concluded that “the reality of the phenomenon is beyond doubt.” (4) People tend to perform to the level expected of them.

The professors reported on a study of elementary school children who were all administered a test that supposedly predicted intellectual "blooming." At the start of the school year, 20% of the children were chosen at random to constitute the experimental group. Each teacher (grade 1 -6) was given the names of the children from her class who were in the experimental group and told that these children had scores on the intellectual "blooming" test, indicating that they would show remarkable gains in intellectual competence during the next eight months of school. In reality, the only difference between the experimental group and the control group children was in the minds of the teachers (i.e., their expectations).

The same IQ test was administered to all the children in the school eight months later. Those children whom the teacher had been led to expect greater intellectual progress showed significantly greater gains in IQ than did the children of the control group. The teachers expected more from these children and the children rose to their expectations. Your team will too. Great expectations fuel great accomplishments.

Use these four keys to gain and maintain your (and your team’s) commitment to your goals during these tough times. How surprised will you be when you overcome tough times and reach your destination? Let me know how you’re doing.


Keep eXpanding,


1. Alex Bryson and Michael White; Organizational Commitment: Do Workplace Practices Matter? Centre for Economic Performance Discussion Paper No 881, July 2008.

2. Milgram, S.; Obedience To Authority. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1974.

3. Karen Frenkel; Even Better Than a Personal Best, Scientific American Mind, April/May 2008, page 17.

4. Rosenthal, R and Rubin, D; Interpersonal Expectancy Effects: The First 345 Studies. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3: 377-415, 1978.

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