Competing Commitment

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It’s a psychological dynamic called a “competing commitment,” and until managers understand how it works and the ways to overcome it, they can’t do a thing about change-resistant employees.

The Real Reason People Won’t Change
by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey

Included with this full-text Harvard Business Review article: 50 Article Summary The Idea in Brief—the core idea The Idea in Practice—putting the idea to work 51 The Real Reason People Won’t Change 59 Further Reading A list of related materials, with annotations to guide further exploration of the article’s ideas and applications

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The Real Reason People Won’t Change

The Idea in Brief
Tearing out your managerial hair over employees who just won’t change—especially the ones who are clearly smart, skilled, and deeply committed to your company and your plans for improvement? Before you throw up your hands in frustration, listen to recent psychological research: These otherwise valued employees aren’t purposefully subversive or resistant. Instead, they may be unwittingly caught in a competing commitment —a subconscious, hidden goal that conflicts with their stated commitments. For example: A project leader dragging his feet has an unrecognized competing commitment to avoid tougher assignments that may come his way if he delivers too successfully on the current project. Competing commitments make people personally immune to change. Worse, they can undermine your best employees’—and your company’s—success. COPYRIGHT © 2001 HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL PUBLISHING CORPORATION. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The Idea in Practice
Use these steps to break through an employee’s immunity to change: DIAGNOSE THE COMPETING COMMITMENT Take two to three hours to explore these questions with the employee: “What would you like to see changed at work, so you could be more effective, or so work would be more satisfying?” Responses are usually complaints—e.g., Tom, a manager, grumbled, “My subordinates keep me out of the loop.” “What commitment does your complaint imply?” Complaints indicate what people care about most—e.g., Tom revealed, “I believe in open, candid communication.” “What are you doing, or not doing, to keep your commitment from being more fully realized?” Tom admitted, “When people bring bad news, I tend to shoot the messenger.” “Imagine doing the opposite of the undermining behavior. Do you feel any discomfort, worry, or vague fear?” Tom imagined listening calmly and openly to bad news and concluded, “I’m afraid I’ll hear about a problem I can’t fix.” “By engaging in this undermining behavior, what worrisome outcome are you committed to preventing?” The answer is the competing commitment—what causes them to dig in their heels against change. Tom conceded, “I’m committed to not learning about problems I can’t fix.” IDENTIFY THE BIG ASSUMPTION This is the worldview that colors everything we see and that generates our competing commitment. People often form big assumptions early in life and then seldom, if ever, examine them. They’re woven into the very fabric of our lives. But only by bringing them into the light can people finally challenge their deepest beliefs page 50

and recognize why they’re engaging in seemingly contradictory behavior. To identify the big assumption, guide an employee through this exercise: Create a sentence stem that inverts the competing commitment, then “fill in the blank.” Tom turned his competing commitment to not hearing about problems he couldn’t fix into this big assumption: “I assume that if I did hear about problems I can’t fix, people would discover I’m not qualified to do the job.” TEST—AND CONSIDER REPLACING—THE BIG ASSUMPTION By analyzing the circumstances leading up to and reinforcing their big assumptions, employees empower themselves to test those assumptions. They can now carefully and safely experiment with behaving differently than they usually do. After running several such tests, employees...
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