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The Power of Strategic Commitment: Part II

November 12, 2009

Welcome to the second part of my interview with Gershon Mader, co-author of The Power of Strategic Commitment. In Part I on Tuesday, Gershon spoke about why he, Josh Leibner and Alan Weiss collaborated on this book. He then talked about the “glue” that’s needed to create a shared focus and to generate energy for change within in organizations. Today, we delve into the difference between commitment and compliance.

JT – You make a key distinction between commitment and compliance, including the limitations around the use of consensus as a decision-making process. How would you see those in senior management positions change the compliance mindset that has traditionally permeated most organizations?

GM – There is a big difference between an environment of authentic commitment and one of compliance. In an environment of authentic commitment, people feel a genuine sense of ownership and accountability beyond their own interests, for the success of the organization as a whole. They are passionate; they go out of their way to make things work. When people behave as owners of the game they don’t engage in finger-pointing, hiding, and ‘CYA’. Instead, they muster the courage to communicate, to address issues and to hold others to account for mutually-agreed commitments—even people above them in the ranks.

An environment of compliance is very different. People in these organizations feel they are victims of circumstance. They are in survival mode to keep their jobs: afraid to speak up and rock the boat, risk-averse, reluctant to commit, lacking in self-confidence that they can deliver.

There are many reasons why most leaders settle for compliance. Some can’t tell the difference; others are so caught up in a command-and-control management style that they actually believe that ordering people to do things will achieve the best efficiency and performance. Or they may be too insecure to risk creating an environment of open, honest and authentic communication in which their employees might criticize them and point out gaps and areas where their leadership could improve.

Leaders who don’t get commitment—not who don’t understand the concept, but who truly don’t get it—lead and make decisions via consensus. Consensus means reaching the lowest common denominator, the compromise that is least offensive to the majority of the people. Underlying consensus, you will find cynicism, resignation and selling out: “We’ll never get everyone to truly agree and commit to this, so let’s at least get them to agree to this compromise…”

I love the way Margaret Thatcher describes consensus. In her memoir, The Downing Street Years, she quotes Forbes Burnham, the one-time president of Guyana, who defined consensus as “something you have if you cannot get agreement.” Thatcher enlarged the definition: “To me consensus seems to be: the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought for and won under the banner “I stand for consensus”? ”

There is no need for alignment in an environment of compliance: people are going along to get along, doing as they’re told. But in an environment of authentic commitment, alignment is paramount.

Alignment is about reaching the highest common commitment. It’s about debating and addressing the real issues, no matter how challenging they are, distinguishing between the essentials, and the trivial and personal preference—and then making choices that everyone owns, and for which each will take responsibility.

There are no inherently right decisions. Only time proves the validity of decisions. How often have we been absolutely certain about our decisions, only to discover that they were wrong, and visa versa? The role of leadership is to make business choices that everyone on the leadership team owns and is responsible for—even if they would have preferred something different—and then aligning and engaging the entire organization in doing the same.

JT – In one section of the book you give a compelling example of peer compliance, in which a new employee learns how things are done in the plant. His initiative is quickly dampened by his co-workers. Too often we don’t read and talk about this aspect of corporate culture, but it’s very real, nevertheless. And I would add that incorporating an organized labour element adds additional complexity to the issue.

What advice can you give to corporate executives who are wrestling with how to address peer pressure, along with bringing organized labour onside with change initiatives?

GM – Peer pressure to underperform is typical of compliant organizations. A new person’s enthusiasm rocks the boat; it creates a precedent that is threatening to cynical employees who have been coasting and reluctant to engage. An organization whose long-time employees discourage new recruits from contributing enthusiastically is in trouble. It needs to face reality, beginning with the leadership team.

It is a major undertaking to transform an environment like this into one of authentic honesty, collaboration and commitment. But it begins with leaders who have the courage to face reality, take responsibility for the problems and work in authentic partnership with each other, with their employees and with their unions.

First and foremost, executives need to generate a compelling vision for the organization’s future that will inspire all their people to think and act in ways that will fulfill the vision. This includes the unions. Trust in the leadership is a pre-condition: employees will never commit to peak performance if they do not believe that their leaders are honest, competent, courageous and compassionate. In companies with an organized workforce, this means that leaders must honour, respect and validate the concerns of labour leaders, while continuously linking the fate of labour with the fate of the company.

Some would argue that labour’s concerns have often been at odds with the aims and concerns of company executives, but we’ve seen many instances where—with the proper, deliberate attention to building credibility, mutual trust and respect, and constant communication and involvement—union and corporate leadership have formed very close alliances to strengthen the company while protecting the ranks of labour as much as is practical given market, economic and industry conditions.

Executives need to stay tuned into the ‘hallway’ conversations within their organizations, as these shape frontline workers’ sentiments and behaviour on a day-to-day basis. Peer pressure is one type of hallway conversation. The more leaders are aware of these, the more they can work with union leaders to interrupt these conversations with ones that are more in line with what is needed to fulfill a bright future for the organization.

Organizations that undertake this transformation can achieve results beyond anything they could have imagined while they were still in compliance mode.

Next Tuesday, I’ll conclude my interview with Gershon Mader on ways to create engagement and alignment with employees.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2009 10:31 pm

    Thanks Debbie and Susan for your contributions. One lens through which I look at this issue is that of firm innovation and competition. If people’s creativity is dampened through repressive management, then one should expect to see less innovation in corporations. Considering that human capital and the capacity for innovation underlie how nations create wealth, and in turn their standard of living, it’s vital that executive management in companies understand the need to engage and align their employees towards a shared common purpose.

  2. November 12, 2009 9:50 pm

    Interesting interview. It is sad when the corporate culture squelches enthusiasm and discourages quality performance. How miserable to work in that sort of place. Might as well be laboring in a Communist country. Like GM said, transformation begins with good leaders.

  3. November 12, 2009 3:33 pm

    Great interviews Jim! The terms compliance, commitment, consensus are so well-articulated that the meaning of each stands out. I agree that many leaders mix them up and lead ineffectively as a result. Compliance is often a term used to create safety cultures in an organization and Ive seen this become the norm into all aspects of the business to the detriment of the people. Ive also seen leaders make consensus decisions that are so watered down that it is no-win as they come from an avoidance-fear position. We do need courage to demonstrate our own commitment, to attract and encourage alignment and to face and initiate provocative questions to stimulate authentic conversations. Thanks for this contribution.


  1. The Power of Strategic Commitment: Part III « ChangingWinds

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