Do you prefer commitment or compliance?


It seems a truism to me that a change can only succeed if it is supported by people. When they show commitment to the change.

However, I still see in practice that there are change leaders who settle for a situation where people do not support the change. When they show the ‘desired’ behaviour, but only because they feel there is no room for doing something else. When they show compliance to the change.

Reason enough to examine whether these change leaders have a point.

I let two of them have their say:

“I have an employee in my team who is dysfunctioning. So I told him that we are going to stop with him. But whatever I say or do, he can’t or doesn’t want to understand. He is just angry. But I can’t simply let this situation continue. It is bothering the customers and other colleagues too much. So he’s angry”.

“The inspectorate told us that we must meet a guideline that only hinders employees in their work. In spite of repeated explanation no one is convinced of the benefit of this guideline. But if we can’t show that we met the guideline, we as an organisation have a problem. It’s not that hard after all. This is just something that is necessary, whether we like it or not”.

On the basis of these examples I sought conditions under which you as a change leader can suffice with compliance. I saw three. And all three have to apply.

If commitment is unlikely

In the first example the interests of the change leader and the other are significant and incompatible. They cannot be united. And there are interests of customers and colleagues that are also affected. The change leader inhibits the interests of the other to protect those of himself and of third parties in the knowledge that the commitment of the other is out of the question. As change on the basis of compliance is still preferable to not changing.

In the second example there are also incompatible interests that result in the impossibility of commitment. The inspectorate wants something, and the employees don’t want this. Yet things are different here. If a guideline is only regarded by those who have to implement it, in spite of all explanation, as a hindrance for the work, then the question whether this guideline is right is justified. Then the incompatible interests are not inherent to the situation, but the consequence of a change that hasn’t been given enough thought. Limiting oneself with compliance is then not a solution. Lobbying to reconsider the guideline or choosing civil disobedience are ways of opening up the route to commitment.

If you also reach your objective with ‘vacant’  behaviour

In the first example the change leader  also achieves his objective when the other has not committed. The other doesn’t even have to understand it. As long as he displays the desired behaviour. In this case: leaving. The example is part of the category: ‘if the other doesn’t understand it, then the announcement is all that’s left’.

However, in the second example the change leader cannot limit himself to ‘vacant behaviour’. Employees will never be able to provide quality by following a guideline – even if it’s just checking a form – of which they don’t even understand the purpose it serves. You can then never be sure whether they check the right box. Confining oneself to compliance means garbage in, garbage out.

If you can accept the relationship damage

When you give someone the signal that it doesn’t’ matter how he feels, as long as he does what you want, you reduce him to a means to achieve your objective. And this can affect the relationship.

This is a high price if you have entered into a partnership with the other. For instance with employees, like in the second example. After all, in a partnership the relationship is the main capital. In this case, we had already seen that compliance doesn’t solve anything, let alone that you want to endanger your relationship for it.

Also if you break up the partnership, like the change leader in the first example, you are partly responsible for the feeling with which the other continues on his way. But even then it cannot be prevented that the other regards you as the enemy. Then the urgency for change may be so great that you make do with the relationship damage. And where you therefore make do with compliance.

But this isn’t the same as giving up the other, or seeing him as the enemy too. This proves that you see the other as an objective in itself and that you continue to aim for his commitment. Even if you don’t succeed, or only slightly. Or it takes a long time before the other feels it like this.

Taking stock

In the second example the change leader cannot limit himself to compliance. He achieves nothing with it, he leaves the underlying problem unresolved and endangers the relationship unnecessarily.

The first example shows that there are exceptional situations in which changing on the basis of compliance is still preferable to not changing. But even then you should not let go of aiming for the other person’s commitment.

You therefore should always prefer commitment.

Annemarie Mars, August 2018

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