The Nature of Commitment
Commitment. What a loaded word. People can easily throw the word around and say "Of course I'm committed to the goals of our organization". Then turn around and take some action that is not consistent with their stated commitment.
What does real commitment mean?
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
-Dr. Margaret Mead
Definition of commitment
Our experience is that authentic commitment lives not just in the thoughts you have or the words you speak, but also in your physical and emotional states. Deep commitments do not exist “out there” in the world. Rather, they exist in you, in the actions you take, and in your relationships with other people. Like so many other aspects of high performance, it's about how you show up and the impact you have on others. Not simply the words you speak.
For a team to be effective all members of the team must share a set of commitments. They must be fully invested and committed with their whole selves.
It is these commitments that provide the inspiration, energy, and will power to do whatever it takes to fulfill the team’s mission.
Maintaining the necessary cohesiveness and effectiveness of the team will likely require learning new skills, seeing things about yourself and others that may be difficult to see, engaging in challenging conversations, and making personal sacrifices.
In the absence of commitment, the inspiration, energy, and willpower to succeed are lost and the team dynamics are likely to degenerate into malaise, in the midst of which finger-pointing, petty squabbles, and lack of direction often arise.
We believe that the following commitments are essential to all teams and that a team cannot remain a team and succeed in its mission unless everyone on the team makes these commitments and behaves in ways that are consistent with them.
8 Essential Commitments of High-Performance Teams
Through our own research and experience, we've found that there are certain commitments that are shared by consistently high-performing teams. These commitments are not easy. They often involve soul searching and sacrifice. They always involve recurring self-examination and a willingness to engage honestly in challenging conversations.
We've summarized these commitments below and have a more detailed description in our white paper: Leading High Performing teams.
8 Essential Commitments of High-Performance Teams
1. Take Accountability for the Mission of the Team
An essential criterion for the formation of a team is that each member takes accountability for the mission of the team. This requires a much deeper commitment than is implied by the traditional understanding of a business team as a group of individuals assigned to work together on a project.
Taking accountability means having an emotional commitment to fulfill the mission, and to consistently behave in ways that will achieve that. Accountable individuals resist behaviors that undermine the success of the mission, and when undermining behaviors do occur, they address them quickly and effectively. This sounds simple and obvious, but failure to understand and adhere to this commitment is at the root of most failures to perform on teams.
Accountability for the mission is an essential commitment that ensures each individual is internally aligned with the mission of the team and will give the appropriate level of their time and energy to fulfilling the mission.
2. Build and Maintain Trust
The commitment to build and maintain trust with all members of the team is essential to ensure that the team is aligned and that everyone’s energy can remain focused on success.
When trust breaks down it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to maintain your commitment to accountability. Focus goes to defending your position and, often, blaming or disparaging others. Team members work behind one another’s backs rather than collaborating, and unhealthy internal competition can arise.
If a person is consistently assessed as being untrustworthy it is up to the leader to address the problem. Initially, this requires having a conversation with the team members in which the problems are openly and respectfully discussed. Coaching for one or more team members may be necessary. Apologies may be in order if a team member’s words or actions have harmed the team or its public identity. It may be necessary for the individual concerned to take some action to repair the team’s identity. In extreme cases, it may be necessary for the leader to remove the individual from the team. This is not a moral judgment that the individual is a “bad” person. It is simply an acknowledgment that their behavior on the team is harming the team’s ability to perform and fulfill the mission.
If the leader fails to ensure that the conversations necessary to maintain a high level of trust are happening, and if they tolerate behavior that diminishes trust on the team, the leader will lose the respect of the team, which will do further harm to the team’s ability to perform.
3. Manage the Mood of the Team
The emotional tenor or mood of the team has an enormous impact on the team’s performance.
Team members must therefore commit to intentionally create and sustain moods that engender success for the team’s mission, such as ambition, gratitude, and hope.
It is inevitable that “negative” moods, such as resentment, resignation, fear, and anger that diminish performance will arise, at both the individual and the team level. These moods are powerful and can quickly derail performance.
The commitment to creating and maintaining positive moods, then, requires that you first be aware of your own mood and that of the team; that you openly discuss the current mood, whatever it is; and that you take action to shift the mood when a shift is needed. The conversations to shift moods can be valuable learning experiences, and the ability to shift moods can be developed as a skill.
An effective practice is to always discuss, at least briefly, the team’s mood at team meetings. One way to quickly shift the mood of the team is an acknowledgment or gratitude practice.
4. Understand and fulfill the roles you play on the team
The promises a person makes to others on the team, and particularly to the leader, define the person’s roles on the team. For example, on a large project to roll out a new product, the leader may ask one team member to take on the responsibility to develop all of the marketing materials; another person will be asked to develop the marketing campaign; another to establish distribution channels; and so on. In promising to fulfill these requests each team member is defining the role they will play on the team – their core areas of responsibility.
It is vital to recognize that, in the spirit of taking accountability for the mission, promising to manage an area of responsibility – marketing campaign, distribution channels, etc. - does not minimize one’s responsibility for ensuring the overall success of the team. If you wholeheartedly take accountability for the mission, then you will be paying attention not only to the actions taken in your area of responsibility, but also to the ways in which you and those working for you coordinate with others on the team, and to possible breakdowns that may be occurring in other areas of responsibility.
The role of the leader is essential in all of this. The leader is operating out of a promise they have made to someone outside of the team. When the roles of a team are not clear, the team and the mission are at risk of failure.
5. Define and Follow the Team’s Standards for Behavior and Performance
One of the critical conversations that must happen when a new team is formed is a team conversation to define behavior and performance standards for the team. This conversation should include a review of the Six Living Principles of High Performance and the dynamics of the Cycle of Leadership. It is important that everyone on the team understands these. These are standards for how the team members will show up on the team and how they will work with one another. These standards should include how people will handle situations in which a promise cannot be fulfilled, emotional conflicts, and how the team will acknowledge progress and celebrate success (both intermediate as well as at the end of the mission).
6. Respect the Authority of the Leader
The Cycle of Leadership lays out clear responsibilities and authorities for the leader. As we said earlier, leadership is given by the people being led; it is not based on the position on the org chart. It is essential that every team member acknowledge the leader as such, grants them authority to lead, and respects them as a leader and as a person.
The role of leader is the most complex and challenging role on a team. It requires a breadth of skills, ranging from ensuring the appropriate conversations take place and managing conflicts that arise to monitoring the external environment and adjusting the mission, roles, and relationships both inside and outside of the team as the project evolves. It also requires a depth of skills – the leader cannot be a lightweight in any of the required skills. Because of the many challenges that arise for leaders, they must be wholeheartedly supported by the team or leadership can quickly dissolve into chaos.
Granting someone the authority to lead does not mean blind obedience, and it does not mean that they have a license to be a dictator. It does mean that they have ultimate authority to declare direction, resolve conflicts, and determine who will play what roles on the team. An effective leader will engage their team in frequent Conversations for Possibilities as they carry out their role, ensuring that they have the insights of the team to draw on and that the team members know they are respected and being listened to.
When there are conflicts or differing opinions about how to proceed, once the leader has declared, it is essential that team members accept the declaration and that their actions reflect their commitment to the direction declared by the leader.
High-performing teams are also learning teams. Ongoing learning is necessary because the world today is more dynamic than ever, and each year – even each month – it gets more so. We must be constantly adapting to changing circumstances, and that can only happen through learning.
Members of high performing teams, then, are committed not only to exercise the skills they have already developed but to continue learning in at least the following two domains:
- The changing state and circumstances of the mission
- Their own skills and opportunities to innovate
The first of these is necessary because any mission other than the most simple is likely to have modifications made before it is complete. These may range from simple minor modifications of specifications to dramatic redirection due to unexpected changes in the marketplace. Key skills here are awareness, openness to learn that things are not as you thought or wanted, and the ability to speak up, even if what you have to say will be unpopular.
The second is necessary because the world is constantly presenting us with new challenges. Competitors come up with unexpected new services and products, political situations disrupt and rearrange the economics and the markets, and scientists create new possibilities that even a few years ago seemed impossible. All of this requires new skills, and often the invention of new skills.
Teams that can see the world in new ways and innovate new approaches to addressing challenges and opportunities have a huge lead over teams that continue to operate with last year’s skills and ways of seeing.
Again, the leader must exemplify both types of learning and must let the team know that it is expected that they will as well. Leaders and each member of the team must be aware, and continuously evaluate, the things that get in the way of learning individually and collectively.
8. Genuinely caring for the future of the team members, team, and company
A final essential commitment is to genuinely care for the other team members, the team itself, and more broadly for the community within which the team is operating. On the highest performing teams, you can see this commitment in the daily interactions among the members. Each individual is proud to be here, on this team, and they care for one another beyond the immediate concerns of fulfilling the mission.
This level of caring brings powerful flexibility and adaptability to the team. When a team member is unable to fulfill their part of the mission others step in to help. When someone has a crisis in their personal life they know they will be supported. Their work will be covered and often they will receive support in other areas of their life. While this can take additional energy from other team members, there is also something energizing about showing up in this way. The petty conflicts and resentments that plague teams that don’t have this commitment do not appear.
The Six Living Principles of High Performance, the Cycle of Leadership, and the eight commitments must be respected as challenging practices that require regular dialog and steady monitoring. In over thirty years working with leaders, teams, and organizational culture, these are the requirements that we have seen for teams to achieve and sustain high performance, and to fulfill their missions consistently and superbly.
It is the role of the leader to ensure that every team member consciously understands these requirements, makes these commitments, and lives by them. These requirements must not be treated as a checklist; if they are, they will have no life, they will become platitudes at best, and they will breed cynicism.
A leader must learn to “dance” with all of these dynamics. One of the purposes of spelling them out is to train leaders to “listen” for which of them is missing or needs attending to with the team. This is not just another set of rules or procedures about teams, it is a set of disciplines and practices that, while challenging, consistently produce super performance, and equally important, an energetic, engaged, and committed workforce.