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Breaking Those Competing Commitments To Change

Volunteer! Business metaphor

Even the most supportive team member can derail organizational change

Change is always difficult in an organization. For a myriad of reasons people resist being taken out of their comfort zone and asked to take on new tasks or modify old ones. It is for this reason that “we’ve always done it that way” is such a comforting way of doing business (see my article 15 Excuses For Not Changing And 5 Reasons To Change The Way We Make Change). But good organizations need to change to keep up with new customer demands, competitive pressures or just to grow and remain efficient.

In life change happens and people adapt. In business change happens and people react. Those who are resistant to change are usually easy to spot and equally as easy to manage and therefore rarely derail a change initiative. However, it is the person that generally supports change and outwardly appears to be working for the implementation of a new initiative that can sometimes harbor a “competing commitment” that can have a more deleterious impact on the success of a new initiative.

The unknown hidden agenda

I know this comes as no surprise to all of you savvy managers, but yes there is a psychological reason that people don’t actually effectuate change despite good intentioned efforts.

Harvard Graduate School of Education lectures Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey state in their article, The Real Reason People Won’t Change, that “even as they hold a sincere commitment to change, many people are unwittingly applying productive energy toward a hidden competing commitment” causing change initiatives to fail. In fact, they go on to state, “competing commitments cause valued employees to behave in ways that seem inexplicable and irremediable….” These valued employees aren’t deliberately trying to undermine change but rather there is an underlying hidden agenda that conflicts with their stated desire to support the initiative.

According to the authors, competing commitments stem from deep rooted beliefs or underlying assumptions that are formed early in life.  Understanding those underlying beliefs and identifying the “big assumptions” will help to break down those hidden barriers.

I had a client, Joe, who was the head of claims for a large organization.  Joe was one of the biggest supporters of a large change initiative to reorganize and modernize the operation. Joe’s management style was to take on work that should have been done by subordinates. He had a very difficult time delegating, and even when he did, he would often re-do the work to ensure it was being done correctly.  Joe knew the organization had problems with technology, staffing and most importantly the ability to deliver consistent results.  As initiatives in the project were designed, Joe was supportive and helpful in identifying problems and offering ways to change and improve the organization.  However, as a particular project was being implemented suddenly Joe would be unavailable or would find a reason why the change he supported, and agreed to, wouldn’t work. Joe’s competing commitment was that the work couldn’t be done if he didn’t do it. His underlying big assumption was if he delegated the work and it was done wrong it would show that he truly didn’t have the management skills to warrant his position.

Joe was someone who started as a field adjuster and worked his way up through management. He worked with many around him that had formal training or advanced degrees and Joe felt the best way to succeed was to become the expert on certain issues and hold them close to ensure his value. This underlying belief system was subconsciously impacting his ability to make change.

Manager = Psychologist = Results

So how does one break the underlying big assumptions?

Whether you realize it or not, part of being a good manager is developing skills akin to a psychologist.  You have to listen, be empathetic to the issues, and help to provide solutions and coping mechanisms to elicit results. Kegan and Lahey give three steps managers can take to help break through and employee’s resistance to change. This is not some quick hit magic pill and takes time and energy to achieve results.  Each step is designed to help draw out what drives a person to be adverse to change.

Step 1 – Diagnose the competing commitment

Digging up a competing commitment will take a small commitment of its own and a few hours to to realize there is another voice countering an employees desire to make things work. The authors suggest these questions be worked through:

  • What would you like to see changed at work, so you could be more effective, or so work would be more satisfying?
  • What commitment does your complaint imply?
  • What are you doing, or not doing, to keep your commitment from being more fully realized?
  • Imagine doing the opposite of the undermining behavior. Do you feel any discomfort, worry or vague fear?
  • By engaging in the undermining behavior, what worrisome outcome are you committed to preventing?

Step 2 – Identify the big assumption

Big assumptions are the elephant in the room within your subconscious.  It is fairly understood and can be identified but often hard to make the connection to the actions a person takes.  “People often form big assumptions early in life and then seldom, if ever, examine them.” One way to understand the big assumption is to invert the competing commitment. Like Joe who couldn’t delegate because he felt the work wouldn’t get done would have a big assumption that would be that if he didn’t do the work it won’t be done right and people would discover he didn’t have the skills to manage.

Step 3 – Test – and consider replacing the big assumption.

Sounds easier said than done. However the trick here is to get the employee to understand their big assumptions and test them as situations come up. From there, the employee can try and behave differently and try and replace those assumptions holding them back.  Changing deep rooted behavior is obviously the goal but even getting an employee to understand and test these assumptions will have a positive impact on a projects success.

It’s worth the trip

Kegan & Lacey point out that “while primary commitments nearly always reflect noble goals that people would be happy to shout from the rooftops, competing commitments are very personal, reflecting vulnerabilities that people fear will undermine how they are regarded both by others and themselves.” Achieving success is no easy task but managers should not be deterred.  Trying to understand and get to the bottom of such competing commitments and big assumptions will in and of itself provide management with additional insight that will undoubtedly help to move the project forward.

How do you deal with stalled projects and understanding people’s resistance to change?


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