How Inspiring Commitment Boosts Compliance

Dr. Rodger Dean Duncan served as a full-time consultant to presidential cabinet officers in two White House administrations and was an aide to several U.S. Senators. He also headed global communication at Campbell Soup Company. He’s the award-winning, bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP.

A really smart guy once said that the secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.

That smart guy was Socrates, the Greek philosopher who knew a thing or two about learning to adapt to emerging circumstances.

In today’s world—disrupted by a pandemic, an economic downturn, and social unrest—“adapting” is required of us all.

Even under the best of circumstances, leading effectively is a challenge. It’s especially so in an environment of change and transition. People are unsure about the future, and this ambiguity feeds the aversion to risk. In such an atmosphere, people need a shepherd, not a sheepherder. They need comfort and confident direction, not a drill sergeant.

This brings us to the issue of compliance versus commitment.

Compliance and commitment are sometimes viewed as “opposites.” In reality, they work best when combined.

In addition to my service for presidential cabinet officers and several U.S. Senators, I’ve provided leadership training to the executive teams at several government organizations. One of them is the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. If there were ever an organization whose reason for being is compliance, it would be the NRC. The agency’s role is to formulate policies and develop regulations to ensure the safe use of radioactive materials. This is very serious business. And a critical component of the desired outcome of the NRC’s work is strict compliance with policies and regulations designed to protect the public.

But let’s consider another paradigm that’s every bit as important to the work and mission of the NRC. That’s the paradigm of commitment.

Obviously, we want everyone in the nuclear industry to comply with policies and regulations that ensure safety. That is doing the right thing.

At the same time, we want them to operate in compliance—not just because they want to avoid getting written up—but because they understand and agree with the rationale behind policies, regulations, and stacks and stacks of rules.

That involves commitment. That involves doing the right thing for the right reasons.

Compliance and commitment are sometimes viewed as “opposites.” In reality, they work best when combined.


I was once discussing this very subject with a bright young manager at a nuclear power station. He clearly understood the importance of compliance, but he seemed to be struggling with the role of commitment. “What difference does it make?” he asked. “As long as people are doing what they’re told to do, why does it matter what their motivation is?”

I noticed in his office he had photos of his young family. I engaged him in conversation about his sons, aged three and five.

“Do you have seatbelt laws in your state?” I asked.

“Yes, we do. And they’re well enforced,” the young father told me.

“Do you buckle up your boys?”

“Absolutely. They have the best car seats money can buy and I always crawl into the back seat to ensure that they’re strapped in correctly.”

“So you invest that effort to avoid getting a citation from the police?” I asked.

“Why, no. That never occurred to me,” he said. “I buckle up my boys because I love them and want to keep them safe.”

“Ah, ha,” I said. “That is commitment. You’re doing the right thing for the right reasons. You’re not motivated by fear, you’re motivated by love—which is a much higher purpose.”

Yes, I know. “Love” is not a word we often hear in the workplace. But we certainly hear a lot of synonyms: “He really has a passion for excellent service.” “Our team gets excited every time we exceed our performance goals.” “Stakeholder care is our first priority.”

It’s possible for people to operate out of compliance while they have very little commitment. But the opposite is virtually impossible. If one is truly committed, compliance is rarely an issue.

The young father was genuinely committed to the safe of his little boys, so his compliance with safety law was automatic.

When he understood that principle, he was then ready to do a better job of training his people. He learned to focus on the all-important WHY of safety regulations. He learned that when the WHY is clear, the WHAT and the HOW are relatively easy.

So, what does this suggest a leader can do to build commitment (and therefore compliance) among team members? Here are three of my favorite leader behaviors:

Listen to learn rather than to judge. Genuinely hear what people have to say about policies and procedures. Sometimes resistance can highlight blind spots—either for the people resisting or for the people who are setting the rules.

Connect the dots. Children don’t respond well to an order punctuated with “Because I told you so!” Neither do adults. Help team members see the clear connection between the “rule” and the desired outcomes. (If that connection is not clear, you may wish to re-examine the rule.)

Celebrate successes. When a performance standard is met or exceeded, highlight the specific behaviors that made it possible. Positive reinforcement is not just for posters in the employee cafeteria. It should be a favorite item in every leader’s toolkit.

As any change-friendly leader knows, people may perform temporarily in a certain way because they feel the heat. But the change becomes permanent only when they see the light.

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