How to get people to honor their commitments

When someone takes a stand on something or goes on record in favor of a position, they want to stick to it. When someone makes a choice actively – a choice that’s spoken out loud or written down or otherwise made explicit – it is much more likely to shape that person’s future actions than the same choice left unspoken. Psychology experiments bear this out, according to Professor Robert Cialdini in his best-selling book, Influence: Science and Practice. How to get people to honor their commitments is also vital in the workplace.

An application of this principle comes in the workplace when a manager wants to influence one of their staff to take a particular course of action: they should get their staff member to put their commitment in writing. For instance, if you are a manager and you want an employee to submit progress reports more promptly and reliably, once you think you have obtained their agreement, ask the person to summarize the agreed decision in a memo or email and send it to you. By doing this, you will greatly improve the chances of that person fulfilling the commitment because people generally live up to what they have written down.

Make your commitments publicly

Research in psychology suggests that written statements become even more powerful when they are made public. You can take this example a step further: if you respond to the same person’s email with a message along lines similar to this, you will strengthen their commitment – “I think your plan is just what we need. I showed it to Sue in production and Bill in marketing, and they thought it was right on target, too.”

This concept is also used in fundraising where people make written pledges to give a certain regular amount to the cause. That written pledge is a semi-public commitment.

A couplet by Samuel Butler explains why commitments must be voluntary to be lasting and effective:

He that complies against his will
Is of his own opinion still.

If an undertaking is forced, coerced or imposed from outside, it is not a commitment: it’s an unwelcome burden. Here’s where you can find out more information on professional fundraising for your organization or cause.

Returning to the example of the tardy employee: if you want to produce an enduring change in their behavior, you should avoid using threats or pressure tactics to gain their compliance. A better approach is to identify something the employee genuinely values in the workplace – team spirit, perhaps – and then describe how timely reports are consistent with those values. That gives the employee reasons for improvement that he or she can own. And because he or she has taken ownership for them, these commitments will continue to guide their behavior even when you are not watching. This is an effective way to get people to honor their commitments.

The power of honoring your commitments

Do you ever say you’re going to do something and then “I’ll do it later” becomes never getting around to it. If you’re like most people, you fail at honoring your commitments in small ways. You do this through your life and although it is often unintentional, it comes at a cost. You do one of the following:

  • Tell somebody you’ll call them later and then you don’t.
  • Tell them, “We must have you ’round for dinner when…” – and you never do.
  • You put an item on your daily to-do list and don’t complete it.
  • Commit to doing something for someone else and don’t follow through

All of this might seem harmless done once or twice. But little things done repeatedly have a big impact on our lives. When you don’t honor a commitment that you’ve made to yourself or someone else, it’s a message to your subconscious mind.What you say can’t be trusted, that your word doesn’t mean much.

It prevents you from achieving your goals and eventually causes people not to trust you or think you’re worthless. And just as bad – you lose respect for yourself.

On the other hand, honoring your commitments gives the words that come out of your mouth power. They actually mean something. Honoring your commitments can simply be defined as: You do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it. Despite its simplicity, there’s great power to be found in doing what you say you will.

“Like anything else in life, this takes practice. You will always have times when you are not able to be impeccable with your word.  But as the words that come out of your mouth and physical reality start to align. You tap into the power to speak things into existence. You start to take control of designing your life,” says writer, author and consultant Srini Rao in a 2019 article about how to get people to honor their commitments.

You can read further on the way scientific research is making positive changes in our lives in my article, “Nudges starting to improve our lives in many ways.”

How to confront those who don’t honor their commitments

When you complain unproductively, you seek to soothe your anger by criticizing another. You might attack the person you blame for your problem or even criticize them to third parties. Your goal is to prove that you have been wronged. You repeat your story over and over. You end up full of negative assessments and righteous indignation.

When you confront productively, you seek to restore coordination, trust, and integrity. You address the person directly. Your goal is to repair the task, the relationship, and the hurt. You confront only once, and you follow through to resolution. At best, you end up with a new agreement that closes the matter. At worse, you realize that your counterpart is not trustworthy and you can responsibly decide what you want to do about it.

Here are three steps for a productive complaint, recommended by Fred Kofman, Vice President of Leadership Development at Google:

  1. Check the commitment. Many problems result from miscommunication at the time of commitment: You think you requested X; your counterpart thinks they promised Y. If this is the case, then discuss how to avoid repeating this in the future. The next time you get a commitment from this person, summarize the agreement and verify that they agree. Then, email them a summary with a request to confirm or correct it. This serves as your ‘signed contract.’
  2. Ask what happened. Besides helping you understand the other person’s perspective, inquiry shows respect. It helps you evaluate whether or not the causes for the breakdown arose after the promise and was therefore unforeseeable. For example, if they called you at the last minute, or not at all, ask why.
  3. Negotiate a recommitment. Every productive confrontation includes a request for resolution. This may just be to recommit to the original promise, or it may include additional conditions. The key is that you clearly express what you need to close the issue, restore trust, and feel at peace. The other key is that you ask for what you really need to close the issue.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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