Skip to content


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?

 

Print This Post Print This Post

Posted in SPOT on Ops.

Tagged with , , , , .


Book Review: The Global Directors and Officers Handbook by Granof & Nicholls November 14, 2014

Posted in Book Review.

In today’s ever expanding global marketpalce, the need for executives to be aware of potential liability exposure is greater than ever. To assist in understanding that exposure, we review the the Global Directors and Officer Handbook, published the ABA (get your copy here) and Edited by Perry Granof and Henry Nichols.

No comments
15 Excuses For Not Changing And 5 Reasons To Change The Way We Make Change April 1, 2014

Posted in Strategic Planning.

Change is hard for everyone and how and when to change has been debated and discussed in companies since the first company was formed. What is never debated are some of the excuses used for not changing. People are generally resistant to change and despite the need to move forward people generally prefer to live with what they have. Taking a strategic approach to the issues around change itself shuold help to alleviate some of the resistence. In this post we look at changing the way we change.

1 comment
Part 3 on Leadership: Challenges and Assistance in Leading Change March 25, 2014

Posted in Strategic Planning.

In Leadership: The Change Process In Claims Requires A Different Approach, I put forth the position that changing a claims organization needs a new brand of leadership skill that does not usually exist in the traditional claims organization. In Part 2 on Leadership: Developing a Strategic Transformation Team, I addressed how to break from existing management process to achieve effective strategic results. In the final installment, I discuss how challenges around leading change make it beneficial to bring in strategic support to help achieve the desired success.

No comments
Part 2 on Leadership: Developing a Strategic Transformation Team March 17, 2014

Posted in Strategic Planning.

Breaking from the linear approach to management is the key to leading Strategic Transformation. A standard organization will have a head of claims and then a variety of department heads to manage each line of business. Depending on the company there may be additional senior managers to handle various operational aspects of the group, which may include support staff, call center, technology and data analytics. Under this method, projects get initiated and managed within the same linear organizational framework. The result of this approach is a development process built in a silo that limits input and understanding of possible interdependencies that may exist outside the framework. In this post we will explore further how a strategic transformation team is formed and can be effective.

No comments
Leadership: The Change Process In Claims Requires A Different Approach March 10, 2014

Posted in Strategic Planning.

Successful organizations are always changing and adopting to improve their operations, lower costs and increase efficiencies. Claims departments are no different and have been under pressure to transform their operations and live by the mantra of doing more with less. Good claims organizations continuously evolve and adapt to ensure they add value to the overall business. Regardless, changing to meet the challenges of the marketplace is often fraught with problems and difficulties. Many initiatives fail to get off the ground or fail in the implementation process. Change can be very successful and if managed and led correctly. To change effectively there must be a strategic approach and a change in how these initiatives are led.

No comments
Claims Challenge: It’s Time for a Change – Are You In? January 14, 2014

Posted in Commentary, My SPOT, Strategic Planning.

Here’s a challenge! Let’s redesign the claims industry. Yes innovation has improved the world of claims over the past few decades to make claims more efficient. As recent catastrophe’s have shown, the industry is much better at responding to losses than in years past. Regardless, claims functions in an assembly line approach. This has of course been a huge improvement and like manufacturing has helped to produce a better more consistent product. Today’s world allows us to collaborate more so my challenge is to tap into your collective experience and come up with even better ideas. What do you think?

No comments
4 Keys to Managing a Successful Outsourced Claims Operation October 30, 2013

Posted in Best Practices, Compliance, Due Diligence, SPOT on Issues.

All things being equal there are many fine TPAs in the market that will provide wonderful service to your insureds in a cost effective and comprehensive manner. Initially you think you have chosen a good one. However, as time goes on you realize you are not exactly getting what you expected from your TPA. So what happened?

It matters little what your reasons for outsourcing were. Bottom line is if you didn’t take certain steps to properly select and manage a TPA you are likely to end up with problems. The partnership you form with your TPA will be fruitful if you take key steps to select and manage them in a way designed to foster long term success.

Learn how in our latest post!

No comments
Kindergarten Management: Getting Back to the Basics June 10, 2013

Posted in Best Practices.

Everything we know in life started back in kindergarten. Kindergarten is where we learned to socialize in groups, lived by rules, played well with others, managed time, took turns asking questions and listened to authority. Success and creativity were rewarded and failures became further learning experiences. The more I thought about this recently the more I realized that kindergarten is a perfect example of a well-functioning organization and management.

We can lean a lot by going back to kindergarten. Bear with me take a look how this would apply in a claims department.

No comments
Claim Files Are Evaluated Using A Form Of Root Cause Analysis So Why Not Do The Same When Evaluating The Department? March 5, 2013

Posted in SPOT on Ops.

Similar to a claim file analysis, operational problems require an assessment as to what happened, how it happened, how could it have been prevented, who was at fault, what’s it going to cost to fix the claim and are there any lessons learned. For example, let’s say payments are being delayed resulting in fines being assessed against the department. If one looks at the fines as a claim one would want to determine what caused the fine? how did it happen? and how can it be corrected? An analysis of the “claim” needs to take place prior to making any decisions. Why not use these smae claim evaluation techniques to understand the operation? In our latest post we give a suggestion for doing just that.

No comments