How Committed Are You?

03.02.2006 · Posted in Business & Worklife

An article last year by Mark Morford in the San Francisco Gate asked, “Why do you work so hard? ” Morford asserts that most of us are living the myth that “hard work is all there is” and supports this with examples of people enriching their heart, instead of their bank account, and in turn, showing how much more well-rounded these people are than you or I.

But is he confusing hard work towards a passion and hard work for the sake of money? Is it really an either/or proposition? Are these examples working any less hard, or are less committed than their counterparts in the corporate world? Probably not, in many cases I bet they are working longer hours because the distinction between work and play isn’t nearly as clear as it once was for them.

So it’s not really a matter of questioning how hard we work. Perhaps the title of his article should be “Why aren’t you working on your passion?”. Indeed, I suspect that most of us invest a similar amount of effort in every job we have, whether it’s $7.90 an hour answering phones, or managing a team of a dozen software engineers. How much we care about our work is programmed into our DNA and there isn’t much we can do about it and we are most comfortable when working with others who are programmed in a similar matter. On the other hand if you are working with a group of others programmed in a different way it’s very frustrating.

But how do we measure our level of commitment using a scale we can all understand? Once we see where we fall on a scale we can have a conversation and think about the forces that might move us in another direction, or keep us right where we’re at. Back in 1990 Peter Senge identified just such a continuum in his book, The Fifth Discipline. He describes how committed to a vision or goal a person might be, and plots it on a scale. The scale itself is pretty simple, ranging from “committed” to “apathy”:

Genuine Compliance
Formal Compliance
Grudging Compliance

If you’re committed to a vision you will do anything to achieve it. It’s personal and you don’t mind bending (or breaking) the rules of society or the law. Being committed means eating, breathing, and living the vision. Normal “business hours” don’t apply — you work it late into the night and on weekends. You get along well with people who are similarly committed to the vision and don’t have a lot of patience with those who don’t see things the same way. When we talk about “passion” we’re usually associating this with someone who is committed.

A close relative of commitment is being enrolled. You still want it, but it’s not quite personal and you’ll follow the rules dictated by your environment. You’ll try to keep normal hours and maintain a life outside of the vision. Working with people who are committed is easy (because you can see where they’re coming from), but you realize that not everyone needs to be committed to accomplish the goals; compliance gets the job done too (it just might take a little more convincing).

Compliance gets broken down into four sub-categories of genuine, formal, grudging and “non”. These are broad ranges and are probably where most people exist. Indeed, Senge says, “90% of what passes for commitment is really some form of compliance.” Here you understand the vision and will do the work needed to complete it, but not much else. The four categories essentially indicate your outlook towards performing the work and your mental state of being.

Genuine compliance demonstrates you really want to do the job as well as you can, but it’s not personal and it’s certainly not the end of the world if it doesn’t happen. When you have formal compliance it’s not so important that you do the job well — you’re just following orders (or adhering to your job description), but nothing more. We’ve all been around people who are in the grudging phase and it’s not much fun having them bring you down with them. Someone who is non-compliant can actually make for an entertaining workplace as they channel their creativity and energy into finding ways around actually getting anything done.

Being compliant doesn’t require a whole lot of effort. It’s the normal state that we tend to fall back to when extraordinary circumstances are not present. Being apathetic and committed both require an exertion of effort and are difficult to maintain. It’s this effort that occurs at the extremes that throws the balance of people living here out of kilter — it’s difficult to lead a normal life when so much of your time and energy are going towards maintaining your embracing of a vision. Could it be said that you might be committed to apathy?

So what does this mean?

  • It means you need to make sure the organizational environment around you is a good match for your own commitment levels.
  • It means you need to make sure the people around you (your boss above, your coworkers, your direct reports, and the office in general), have the right idea of where you fall on the spectrum. It’s all relative, depending on your environment.
  • It means if you’re an entrepreneur who is committed, you’ll be more likely to break through.

This first point is crucial. If you find yourself in an environment where everyone is more committed than you, you probably won’t last long. They are going to be putting in more effort and expecting everyone else to put in a similar amount. You won’t understand why they are working so hard and they won’t understand why you don’t care as much as they do. On the other hand, you don’t won’t enjoy working in an environment where you are the most committed person around. Although one or two levels of difference probably don’t matter, if you are two or more levels away from the people around you, you become an island and are questioned for your motivations and for working “too hard”.

Assuming that you’re a decent match commitment-wise to the environment in which you find yourself, you need to make sure those around you have the right idea about you. After all, as Dick Haab says, the perception of others is the only thing that matters. In most cases this means managing your perception such that the people who manage you see you much as they see themselves (without being a threat), and the people whom you manage see you as one of the most committed people they know. After all, your relationship with your direct reports is probably closer (and in many cases less formal) any other working relationship you have. You see these people every day, know their family’s, and know what they do for fun.

Finally, and most importantly for the entrepreneurial among us, realize that being truly committed increases your odds of success. Note that nothing guarantees success, but having a passion, and living that passion, gives you a head start. Indeed, as Paul Graham notes in the “Should You” section of his “How to Start a Startup ” essay starting a company requires stamina, long hours, and acceptance of a lot of risks.

Thinking back over the years I realize that I’ve been at many different places on the continuum of commitment. Sometimes I’ve been the most committed, and sometimes I’ve edged into apathy. I think most people aren’t even aware of how committed they are, let alone how their own commitment fits in with their coworkers, their environment, and how they see themselves. So how committed are you?

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