From Compliance to Commitment

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A compliant person does something to meet the minimum required to stay in good graces. Commitment is when a person’s thoughts, attitudes, words, feelings and behaviors all line up and one is accountable. They mean what they say and say what they mean.

“You get the best efforts from others not by lighting a fire beneath them, but by building a fire within.”  

-Bob Nelson


People used to think of the workplace in terms of the activities and behaviors that employees needed to perform well. Managers used supervision and structure to make sure staff performed their activities properly and the job of the employee was mostly to comply with this sort of command-and-control management.

This system no longer brings the best results. Greater numbers of workers are apathetic
and choose to disengage either partially or fully. Changes are underway. Workers are better informed than ever before and sense the shift in the general focus towards greater collaboration, mutual respect and democratic equality and they want in on these changes too.

So, the old ways of functioning in the workplace are no longer effective. A new way is required in which everyone in the organization must take greater responsibility for handling uncertainty and change. Today’s businesses are not simply about performing activities well; staff at all levels must learn to direct their own activities towards the business purposes. The worker’s role, then, must shift from passive compliance to proactive self-management and commitment. The manager’s role must change to accommodate a greater transfer of responsibility to others, including shared power, governance, flexible methods and innovation.

In order to open to the new, it’s important to first recognize the limitations of the existing models in place that have dominated thinking for centuries. These include the counter-productivity of using domination, incentives, judgment, competition and other control-based approaches in an attempt to motivate and bring about positive change in your workforce.


Motivational requirements have changed. Self-management requires a deeper level of personal commitment than when operating by the old standard of compliance. Workers must now be committed to purposes they choose. The new model needed is also more psychologically demanding, with everyone exercising greater social interest, judgment and decision-making. Although pay, incentives, pleasing the boss and other extrinsic rewards remain important to your staff, it’s clear the new organizational model requires much more. Effective self-management depends heavily on intrinsic motivators – psychological rewards people get from self-management itself.

At its heart, intrinsic motivation is not so much about what’s rational or what “works” in the moment of stress – it’s about the passion and positive feelings people get from engagement in their work; it’s about sustained change. Passionate feelings reinforce or energize the self-management efforts of people and provide crucial fulfillment needed to keep them engaged. Building intrinsic motivation then, is about finding ways to enable and amplify meaningful feelings.

Recognizing the need for greater intrinsic motivation, many company owners have begun trying different approaches, often in a hit-or-miss way. Organizational development books are forever focused on various strategies to help. What has been missing is a system on intrinsic motivation for the workplace that spells out the key pieces of the intrinsic motivation puzzle and how they fit together. What’s needed is a human system providing a framework and tools to lead managers and their staff from motivational problems to effective solutions.

Leaders shifting from compliance to commitment are still a relatively rare breed. The process requires courage and openness to learn and develop new skills. And leadership team alignment is critical. That’s what I’ll be discussing in my next article. Until then, choose to live a life you love.

As published in the column The Extraordinary Workplace in St. Louis Small Business Monthly, May 2013

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