Leading Change: 6 Signs that tell you might be dealing with Compliance rather than Commitment

Word Commitment on orange wall

In my earlier post Why Alignment is crucial for those who Lead Change I explained how a lack of alignment can lead to compliance instead of commitment and how this can be a serious setback in achieving change.

In all the years that I’ve been working with business leaders I have never met a leader who stated that having a committed team was not important for creating successful change. Every experienced leader knows it is important – no not important – it is crucial. Commitment triggers a sense of ownership, of responsibility and accountability, a will to go that extra mile, an almost logical reflex to jump in and help each other with doing the job. But it doesn’t come cheap and be careful not to confuse it with compliance!

Compliance is often the enemy of commitment! Why? Because it disguises itself as commitment and by doing so can hinder change.

It is much easier to face open resistance. In that case it is clear, the cards are on the table and you can deal with it. In the case of compliance it all seems ok. No signs of resistance. But as soon as people feel the impact of the change, compliant behavior can rapidly transform itself into resistance.

In other words, the sooner you can spot compliance in your team, the more chance you have you can still change it into commitment and turn your team from a lagging mode into a leading mode.

How can you spot it? Here are 6 signs that tell you might be dealing with compliance rather than commitment:

  • Action orientation instead of result orientation

Compliance often leads to action-oriented behavior. ‘As long as I’ve done my task I’m ok. The others have to take care of the rest.’ There is no real concern about the result, about whether things could be done better. Committed people are mostly concerned about the end result and less about how to get there. ‘It is the end goal we all do it for.’

  • Little interest in higher goals, vision and strategy

Committed people are intrinsically interested in the vision and strategy behind the change. It is fueling their commitment. The stronger they can identify with the vision and strategy, the more committed they will be to act and make it happen. Therefore they will raise questions and discussions about the vision, strategy and objectives, where you will hear much less of this in case of compliance.

  • People are talking ‘YOU’ and ‘THEY’ instead of ‘WE’ and ‘US’

In conversations or team meetings real committed people don’t even notice themselves talking in ‘we’ or ‘us’ because it comes from within. They just know that we are in this together and that we help each other out where needed because we want the change to be successful. Compliant people use more ‘they’ and ‘you’ in their communication. They do not easily relate their work to that of others. You will hear things like: ‘I’ve done my share, the rest is up to you.’ ‘I don’t know what the problem is, you have to ask them.’ ‘It’s not my fault, I did what I had to do.’

  • Trying to stay below the radar

You might be dealing with compliance rather than commitment when people are staying low, when they make sure they stick to the rules and do what their boss expects them to do without any further initiative or extra effort. Real committed people show pro-active behavior, are continuously looking for things to improve, take initiative and do not wait for others to go first.

  • Uncomfortable with questions like:
    • Why should we do this according to you?
    • What should be our desired result?
    • What do you propose?
    • How would you like to solve this?

A simple test is to ask one of these questions. Committed people will not only have an answer but will also appreciate this type of questions. They will react engaged. When you deal with compliance, people will react more hesitant or even annoyed. These questions appeal to their sense of ownership. In many cases they will only feel responsible for the short-term tasks that were appointed to them and therefore these questions are difficult for them.

  • Tendency not to set deadlines and being uncomfortable with others setting them

In situations of compliance you can experience a lack of deadlines. Because of the action orientation there is a tendency not to be too strict with deadlines and timing. Deadlines are perceived as extra pressure and therefore are preferably loosely managed or avoided. Committed people want to see progress and want to feel they are reaching the desired outcomes. For them paying attention to deadlines, timing and milestones is logical.

Are you dealing with commitment or compliance in your team? How is it affecting your change process? Do you encounter the same behavior as above or does it show itself in other ways? Feel free to add and comment!

Do you want to know more about how to turn compliance into commitment? Keep following upcoming posts or contact Aad.

Photo: thenext28days/Flickr (Creative Commons)

8 Comments on “Leading Change: 6 Signs that tell you might be dealing with Compliance rather than Commitment

  1. Add:

    Good list. Allow me to suggest number 7.

    7. No new information is very good information. Things can go on as they are going.

    “I can’t negotiate the problems on my plate as it is. New information just adds to my pile of problems.”


    • Stan,

      Good point. Very recognizable and important to tackle. For instance by asking questions and probing deeper into the ‘why’ of the person’s inactivity and his/her perception of the ‘potential impact’ of it.
      Thanks for sharing!


  2. Pingback: Expert Interview Series: Aad Boot About Creating Executive and Leadership Team Alignment · John Mattone

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