Commitment v Compliance. What’s the difference?

All good leaders know the difference between ‘internal commitment’ and ‘compliance’. Yes, sometimes, compliance will have to do, particularly in moments of crisis and great urgency, when there is no time to put the ‘effort’ into gaining real buy-in.

But, the downsides of trying to lead when all you have behind you is ‘compliance’ are clear:-

    • People who are not fully committed to your vision and journey are unlikely to ‘go the extra mile’ when the going gets tough.
    • People will need convincing over and over again as each new situation arises.  Basically you buy compliance with a ‘for one use only’ sticker. 
    • People do not undergo learning and growth so successfully when they adopt a state of ‘grudging compliance’ , unlike when they are ‘fully committed’ and bought in to what they are doing.
    • People who are not ‘fully committed’ tend to look to others to take responsibility and blame others when things go wrong. In other words they deflect responsibility.

For a leader to be successful in their venture, they need their teams and followers to be fully committed and bought in completely to the vision and journey, and be prepared to take individual responsibility for making it happen.

The real work of a leader is therefore in gaining this level of passion, loyalty and spirit. Helping people to see the value of being part of the team, painting (in multi-colour) the picture of what lies ahead, and imbuing people with a vivid sense of excitement.  Once this is achieved, the leader can enjoy seeing the results of these efforts.

    • Watching people take on ‘personal responsibility’  for a cause that they now believe in.
    • Observing commitment in people that is now ‘internalised’  to the point where it does not need ‘topped up’ every time a new problem or new situation occurs – ‘commitment is reusable’ 
    • Seeing people develop, learn and grow, not only in terms of specific domain knowledge but, even more rewarding, in terms of ‘self-growth’
    • Experiencing drive, momentum and relentless energy in pursuit of what is now a ‘shared vision’ 
This does take effort, and if it is not happening fast enough, it can be tempting to take short-cuts and resort to approaches that merely achieve compliance.
But, be warned, it is a simple choice.
“Pre-work or Re-work”  Which would you prefer?

If you would like to discuss how you can become a more effective leader, a leader who is able to inspire, influence and gain internal commitment, rather than merely compliance,  please get in touch by submitting your details through the Contact Us page. I will be only too glad to discuss with you.


17 thoughts on “Commitment v Compliance. What’s the difference?

  1. Thanks for the great post. Your descriptions of the benefits and drawbacks of internal commitment vs. compliance are clear and compelling. I was stuck by the notion that while internal commitment is the best option, sometimes compliance might be the best you can hope for.

    My sense is that if you build the internal commitment to the organization around a clear and compelling purpose and vision of the organization and that all of the organizations actions are then strategically aligned to the purpose and vision, that in the moments when crisis or great urgency arise you’ll be able to draw on the internal commitment of the workforce to successfully navigate the crisis, rather than feeling the need to rely on compliance in those moments. For me, one of the most important aspects of building internal commitment is for drawing on that strength in just those moments.

    • Thanks Rachel. I really appreciate your thoughtful and insightful comment. I totally agree with what you say. The work that is put in to create commitment will pay dividends when the going gets tough. Spot on.

  2. In North America, a lot of leftovers exist from the Industrial Age school system including the educating of people to be a workforce that is punctual, obedient, and compliant…traits thought to have been excellent for the workforce to acquire. It is my experience that one of the challenges that employers face in getting to commitment is to assist employees to overcome patterns where compliance only was what was rewarded.

    thanks for a great article. I am wondering though about your notion of ‘it takes time’. It is the one point that I don’t agree with. People can go deeply and get committed in a short time, in the right conditions. I think this is what Rachel was getting at.

  3. Great article. In my experience, most employees have gone through an educational system that was geared for the Industrial Age in which graduates were wanted for the workforce that were compliant, obedient, and punctual. It is an extra challenge being faced by employers…to assist the members of their workforce to have the experience that commitment is wanted and rewarded, not compliance.

    I do not agree that it needs to take time. It needs intense work, people willing to go deeply…and can be done in a short time too if the conditions are right. I think that this might be something that Rachel was getting at.

  4. Thanks for your comments Birgitt. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I accept your challenge that commitment can in fact be achieved relatively quickly, albeit with effort. I agree that this is a fairly fundamental cultural change of mind-set – not just within our organisations and companies but at a societal level. Thanks again for adding to the conversation.

  5. Thanks for the invitation to comment. Organisations form around a purpose, and successful organisations are those fit for purpose. Purpose is the “glue” that brings everyone together. If the vision and journey allows for expression of the purpose there are rarely problems. When the vision or journey deflects people from the purpose (that been the reason they choose to work in an organisation) then you have difficulty.

    Leaders often fail to understand the purpose, and to develop a shared understanding of purpose, and instead jump straight into the mission & vision thing. That’s when your people start asking “why are we doing this”. Mission and vision are rightly aspirational. Purpose can be lived fully at any point along the path to the vision.

    • Thanks Shaun. Really thoughtful response. I guess what you are saying is that Purpose is the key. If the Purpose is clear and well articulated, then commitment follows. Leaders need to be careful that they do not jump ahead to mission & vision and leave their people behind – i.e. assuming they have bought in to the purpose. Is that fair?

      • There is a big ‘IF’ as you are pointing out. Purpose can be clear and well articulated however, it is not enough. IF people do not get excited about the purpose or the purpose is dishonest in relation to experience, it is not enough of an attractor field for commitment.

  6. Compliance versus commitment becomes an especially interesting issue when we look at it through a generational lens. I’ve done some research and written about multi-generational work environments and here’s what I’ve found: The older members of our workforce (Traditionalists and to some degree, Baby Boomers) value loyalty to the organization that employs them. They may not like to be compliant, but they may be willing to tolerate it, at least to some extent, because of that loyalty value. However, younger employees (Generation Y and Millennials) place a greater value on respected and having opportunities for personal growth and achievement. They may not tolerate compliance management as well as their older colleagues. In fact, forcing a compliance mentality on younger employees may convince them to seek a new job.

    • Thanks – this a really valuable contribution to the discussion, and a perspective that I am sure would serve leaders well to be aware of. Are you able to share links to your articles, Laura?

  7. Louis, Thanks for the invitation to read and respond. You have written very convincingly on an important topic. I am glad you included the fact that sometimes compliance is necessary, but obviously commitment is desirable. The question is how to obtain the commitment. I believe commitment comes from being the person (leader) that people of any generation will admire and feel an emotional connection strong enough that they commit to an idea or plan of action. The idea may be wonderful, but if the leader cannot make those connections, followers will go in another direction.

  8. Louis, Thank you for the invitation to read and respond. You have written very convincingly on an important topic. I am glad you included the fact that sometimes compliance is necessary, but commitment is obviously desirable. The important question is how one gains that commitment. I believe people commit because of the person (leader) involved. Unless a leader can generate admiration and emotional connection, potential followers will take another course or follow another leader even if the idea or the action is worthwhile. Keep up the interesting posts.

    • Lyn, I really appreciate you taking the time to contribute. I think your point that even great ideas or powerful causes may be overlooked if the leader is unable to secure a connection with people is worth thinking carefully about. How many such movements have been lost to humanity for this reason? Thanks for the encouraging comments.

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