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Compliance vs. commitment: Why it matters to engagement

Jan 17, 2023
By: Tom Cox

One way to measure organizational success is the engagement of employees in the pursuit of the organization’s strategy and goals.

Employees want to be more engaged, but what they often find lacking from their leaders and managers is a lack of clarity around goals and vision to which they can commit their engagement. Often, individual contributors and teams lack a clear understanding about how their goals align with the organization’s strategy and business. Without this link, basic compliance is substituted for engagement in an effort to fit more with the cultural norms of the organization, but without any true passion or understanding.

Compliance implies an adaptation of internal behavior to external rules and a tendency to yield readily to others in the hopes that they know better where the goals and objectives of the organization fall.

Commitment, on the other hand, means a dedication and understanding of the outcomes with a personal interest and motivation to be an integral part of the process in achieving the goals of the organization.

Commitment equals engagement.

This can play out in four different combinations among leaders and teams:

1. Compliant team/compliant leader

The dynamic of compliant teams and compliant leaders can often be the result of organizations that have rigid structures and processes in place. The teams and leaders know the rules and procedures of what they need to accomplish, and efficiencies are gained in the flow of information and work, but creativity and innovation are severely hampered if the team and manager don’t know the “why” of their work.

In other words, teams and leaders need a clear understanding of why they do what they do and its impact on the success of the company.

2. Compliant team/committed leader

Committed leaders can often be guilty of looking upward in the organization to try and meet the needs of their direct leaders rather than making sure their teams clearly understand the strategic direction of the company and engaging them in the pursuit of the company’s goals.

Leaders in this dynamic often let personal ambition and relationships guide their actions, not fully understanding their management responsibilities in guiding and developing their teams.

Teams can become compliant when the leader does not make the time or effort to communicate the vision and direction of the organization.

3. Committed team/compliant leader

Committed teams don’t appear out of nowhere, typically there has been an accomplished leader (either formal or informal) that has brought the team to this point. The danger here is the discouragement of team commitment through the efforts of a new or inexperienced manager. If possible, transitions should be anticipated and monitored to ensure a high performing team doesn’t get overmanaged in the new leader’s effort to establish control.

4. Committed team/committed leader

This dynamic is typically where the highest levels of employee engagement occur. Teams know what needs to be done in regard to the objectives of the company, and they understand their roles in that quest.

Committed leaders understand how to communicate, encourage and monitor performance associated with those organizational goals. These leaders recognize a committed team, and they coach rather than manage their associates.

Given that for most companies, 70% to 80% of their workforce is composed of individual contributors, frontline leaders and supervisors have the most impact on helping the majority of employees make the transition from compliance to commitment.

Leaders and managers who can articulate a clear line of sight from the company’s strategic goals and make it relevant to their team’s objectives and outcomes are the ones who will be successful drivers of increased engagement for organizations. Clear vision leads to better commitment which leads to higher engagement.

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