Saturday, April 4, 2009

How Leaders Gain Commitment to Difficult Goals

CommitObstaclesj0238055jpeg Last week, a leader (Len) told me that one of his veteran middle managers (Mark) had mishandled another customer complaint. This time, a customer had criticized the poor service she received. Mark defended his team and showed little empathy for the customer. The customer then wrote a scathing editorial in the local paper.

When Len questioned Mark about his approach, Mark said he cared so much about the company that he didn’t like his team being criticized. How would you motivate Mark to achieve a better customer service outcome?

I coached Len to focus on what Mark had already told him was of high value to Mark. That’s when Len got it. He understood that the best way to obtain Mark’s commitment to better service was to communicate how Mark’s current approach was actually hurting the company. Len told Mark that if he really cared about the company, he and his team would finally come up with a plan to manage customer complaints better.

Len’s approach to gaining commitment to the service goal is working. The plan is in place. Service has improved. Mark has moved from compliance to commitment, based on what Mark values. That’s the power of value.

As you embark on your journey to achieve any goal, the first key to an effective plan is to make sure those who need to execute are fully committed to reaching the destination. That's what the story is about.

The word commit 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 difficult goals is filled with many obstacles, the true measure of your leadership is how connected your team stays when they encounter these barriers.

In their comprehensive goal-setting book, Professors Locke and Latham identify the numerous factors that affect commitment. (1) Seven are listed below. The opening story, and this entire blog, focuses on the valence.

The Seven Secrets of Gaining Commitment

A. Valence

B. Rewards

C. Involvement

D. Authority

E. Competition

F. Publicness

G. Expectancy

A. Valence - The Value of Value

Valence is defined as, “the value placed on achievement.” Thus, value is first on the list because it reveals the why beneath what we do. It is the steam behind the “MOTORvation” engine. Have you seen the consequences of leaders who do not communicate the value - the why - of a difficult goal? If not, it’s because under normal circumstances you seldom see the negative consequences of low commitment. Lack of commitment only surface when a storm hits. Those who don’t see the value of a goal point fingers and blame others in the face of adversity. Employees who highly value the goal find a way to “get er done” despite difficulty. One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is confusing commitment and compliance. Committed employees give their heart and soul as they pursue a difficult goal; those who comply merely put in their time.

When the Corporate Leadership Council surveyed more than 50,000 employees in 59 organizations worldwide, they found that the employees performed at a 20% higher level when they valued their jobs. (2) Leaders communicated value by: telling employees how important they were to the success of the business, giving them numerous opportunities to contribute, and helping them believe in the worth and credibility of the organization.

Another way to help others see their value in your goal is to brainstorm the benefits they will receive when the goal is achieved. Here's how I did it with 100 executives at their leadership retreat: I gave each leader a blank sheet of paper and told them that I would give a prize to the person who wrote the most answers, in 59 seconds, to this question: If we achieve this new goal, what benefits might you personally receive?

At the end of 59 seconds, I gave a prize to the leader who had the most answers (I wanted quantity, not quality). They then shared some of their answers as I wrote them on a flipchart. Within minutes, they had sold themselves and each other on their leader’s new goal. They had found their value in his goal. How can your team find what they value in your goal?

Keep eXpanding,


1. Locke E and Latham G: A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance. Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, 1990.

2. Leigh Buchman: The Things They Do for Love, Harvard Business Review, December 2004, 19 -- 20.

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