Internal Commitment

Internal Commitment

After you have determined your objective and strategies, it's important to get your constituents involved in putting together the execution elements of your plan. Encourage your employees to be involved in a collaborative process of setting measurable tactics and actions. Recalling an executive's insight from chapter 2, it's a mistake to hand down these portions of the plan from atop the mountain: "You can invite [accountability], but I don't think you can impose it on somebodyand if you believe you can, then I think you're setting up a situation for failure." Moreover, these people have the first-hand knowledge and in-the-trenches insight that get the job done.

Managers have always asked themselves, "How do I get my people committed to producing results?" We can say we're accountable for what we do, but do we really believe it? As Harvard professor Chris Argyris argues, to be fully accountable, employees need to be internally committed to achieving the results. As his wording implies, this means the drive is coming from within the individual: "Internal commitment is created when individuals have significant influence on defining the goals to be achieved and the paths required to achieve them, when the goals represent a significant (but not insurmountable) challenge, and when all these are related to the central values and the needs of the individual."[4] In other words, people need to be a part of the process, and what they're working on must be meaningful to them. More often than not, however, managers get external commitment from employees. The difference, says Argyris, is that

when someone else defines objectives, goals, and the steps to be taken to reach them, whatever commitment exists will be external. Internal commitment is different. It requires not the acquiescence, but the participation of employees in defining both goals and performance standards.[5]

If what you want is internally committed employees who are fully accountable for their actions—in other words, if you want breakthrough results—don't pay lip service to buy-in. In fact, when companies thrust accountability onto employees, results are marginal at best. This final point from Argyris is worth repeating at length (emphasis mine):

Difficulties commonly arise when managers espouse values and actions consistent with [internal commitment] but implement programs, that are, in fact, consistent with [external commitment]. The inner contradiction comes alive largely when implementation efforts begin. Managed poorly, such contradictions can rip an organization apart. Ironically, what often prevents a blowup is that employees learn to live with the inconsistencies by quietly distancing themselves from feeling responsible for continually energizing the programs. This may prevent disaster, but it sacrifices the upside potential of a fully engaged cohort of employees.

No wonder so many reenergizing initiatives have proven disappointing. Notwithstanding the rhetoric of internal commitment, the lower one looks in an organization undergoing reengineering, the more conditions are consistent with external commitment. This is, no doubt, an important part of the reason why such processes have had, at best, limited positive consequences and, more often, have decreased management's credibility.[6]

If employees are "quietly distancing themselves from feeling responsible," you've got an accountability problem. No matter what the management rhetoric, people will lose interest in the tasks at hand if they didn't play a role in defining them. As initiatives sputter and die time and again, employees will assuredly lose trust in the leadership of an organization.

Argyris's point about commitment provides a word of warning to those who read this book, find the concepts useful, and go back to their organization ready to "implement" the processes described. Even if you are in a leadership position, you can't walk in the door and cram accountability down people's throats. In implementing any organizational change—as with the goal-setting process—you need to build credibility and buy-in at a grass-roots level. It takes time.

What's crucial—and worth repeating, since it's so often forgotten—is the collaborative nature of the execution part of planning. Only with collaboration will you earn full, internal commitment and accountability from your employees, a primary tenet of the Accountable Organization.

Practice Like You Play

I have a good friend who has played on the professional women's tennis tour. I've always wondered, what's the difference that makes the difference? What separates the number one tennis player in the world from number ten, from number one hundred, and then, from a club pro? The first time I played tennis with my friend, I noticed that during her warm-up she was running down every ball. I mean, every ball, no matter where I hit it. After watching her chase my stray shots for ten minutes, I had to ask the question: Why? "I hate to let the ball get past me," she replied. At some point, probably as a child, she had learned that every ball counts—whether it's game day or not.

One of the managers on my executive team coaches little league baseball. He'll often bring up gems from how he coaches his kids, and invariably there is some application to business management. "Practice like you play," he once said, having recently watched a few of our salespeople—who are naturally great on their feet—turn in a shoddy performance at an important internal meeting. Rambling through their presentations, unprepared, it was if they were telling the rest of us, "So what? We only turn up the juice when it matters."

I don't mean to pick on my salespeople, but it does matter. In my former job, I wouldn't dare get up in front of my colleagues without being totally prepared. As far as I was concerned, it was game day every day; things haven't changed in my role at FWI. At that meeting, part of what I was seeing was a lack of internal commitment. The sales team hadn't bought into the process; they didn't understand the importance and so they winged it.

Moreover, they had forgotten that, as the saying goes, how you do anything is how you do everything. In other words, they forgot that last, crucial element of effective execution: discipline. After strategy and internal commitment, finally there is the personal work ethic. Like integrity, it's something we can spot in other people, and something we admire. If you've got it, you have a leg up in this world. If you don't, you might ask yourself why—and take a hard look at how it's holding you back from realizing your potential.

[4]Chris Argyris, Flawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They're Getting Good Advice and When They're Not (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 40–41.

[5]Ibid., 43.

[6]Ibid., 159.