Competing Commitments Stifle Change

You’re banging your head against the wall trying to figure out why that one person just can’t see the need to change. You’ve tried the carrot, you’ve tried the stick, you’ve tried coaching, but nothing seems to work. How can it be that an otherwise smart and reasonable person just simply refuses to change, even when the change is obviously needed?

Competing Commitments cause self-conflict

I have worked with leaders in this situation for over 15 years and one of the most common reasons for unchanging behavior is a psychological concept that Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey from Harvard call “competing commitments.” Obviously everybody has external competing commitments. If you are at work, you’re not looking after your sick mother. You need to be at your kid’s soccer game, but you also need to travel to Kansas City. The internal competing commitmeCompeting Commitments cause self-conflictnts, however, are often hidden from view, both to you as the manager and to the employee.

Take John for example. He was a rising star in the company and has continually been told that if he improves his presentation skills, he could seriously be considered for a senior position. He’s been offered workshops, he’s tagged along with other presenters, but still, his presentation skills are just not of the level they need to be. He won’t change.

Our friend John has an internal competing commitment. On the one hand, he is committed to being successful at work. On the other hand, he is committed to having a stellar reputation as an expert at what he does. John recognizes that, immediately after a promotion, he’ll be a novice again as he learns a new job. He doesn’t know if he can be a star at the next level. His commitment to success conflicts with his commitment to personal reputation. So…he doesn’t do what is necessary to get the promotion and may not even know why himself.

As you can see, throwing money or threats or anything else at John isn’t going to be successful because those aren’t really the problem areas. To uncover these issues you need to be able to have a real dialogue with your employee about what is getting in the way. This takes awhile and is often a good role for a coach…either professionally trained or at least somebody who the employee can trust to work through the issue without criticism or negative consequences.

What do you need to change that has been impossible? What competing commitments are you struggling with? This might be an area worth serious personal reflection, as you might uncover…as painful as it is…some of the areas where you sabotage yourself. If you can identify the conflict you can often come up with a new solution that allows all areas of concern to be addressed.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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