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Dysfunctional Commitment

This content is syndicated from George Dinwiddie's blog by George Dinwiddie. To view the original post in full, click here.

Team commitment is a wonderful and sometimes fragile thing. Many responses to my description of it are indications of how frequently the word “commitment” is used in a dysfunctional manner. Indeed, the post was prompted by similar conversations.

Believe me, I’ve seen these dysfunctions many times. They are so numerous and varied that no catalog of them could be complete. It’s not the word, commitment, that causes the problems, however. And avoiding that word will not solve the problems. Instead, we have to look at the behavior and attitudes behind the problems in order to reliably recognize them and choose strategies for correcting them.

A common fundamental issue is distrust between managers and workers. If these two groups see themselves in opposition, rather than in alignment, then even the most well-intentioned statement may be taken poorly. This can engender a response that furthers the distrust. The reinforcing feedback cycle that results can drive a deep wedge between the two, and create persistent stereotypes.

When a healthy team looks at each other and asks themselves for mutual commitment, they’re committing to working together in trying to achieve a common goal. When someone off the team asks for a commitment, it no longer feels mutual. It feels like being asked to make a promise. Often it feels like you’re being set up to take the blame for something outside your control. Far too many times, these feelings are correct—you are being asked to promise something you can’t reasonably promise so that you can be blamed when things don’t go as desired. And the person doing so may, in fact, be in the same bind, and looking for a scapegoat to take the heat off themselves.

When fearful of being blamed if a promise is not met, for whatever reason, it’s a natural tendency to avoid making the promise at all. When feeling pressured to make a promise, it seems safest to promise as little as possible. Such evasion tactics do not typically go unnoticed. Rather than being seen as an attempt to avoid unfair blame, they are likely to be interpreted as an attempt to avoid work or responsibility.

This avoidance, or general disappointment in the rate of accomplishments, may lead to a request to “commit to a little more.” This is a clear sign that we’re dealing with a negotiation of a promise rather than a voluntary commitment. Even a request for “stretch goals” sends the same message. The message is that you could do more, but you’re choosing to not.

And so the cycle proceeds.

There are many similar ways that such dysfunctions can grow. There are probably very few in the Information Technology field who have not experienced some of these dysfunctions. Some leave and find happier places to work. Some work to make their place happier. And some think this is just the way things are.

It’s not easy unwinding such a spiral. It’s not the word, commitment, that causes the problems. And avoiding that word will not solve the problems. It takes communication, growing transparency, and growing trust. It’s difficult and dangerous to attempt these in a low-trust blaming environment. Courage is required to attempt it. Skill and/or luck is required to succeed.

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