By Nick Tiger.
“Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes… but no plans.” -Peter F. Drucker
The holidays feel different this year, as the usual crowds and gatherings have been dampened by the stress and restrictive measures of a year-long pandemic. While employees modify their holiday rituals to adjust to the new normal, leaders across industries are engaging in their own seasonal custom of goal setting for 2021. Whether you are a boutique law firm owner or the GC for a multinational corporation, goal setting is a simple yet effective way to drive future group performance. But even thoughtfully crafted goals can fail, threatening to extend the missed marks, stalled sales, and delayed deliverables of 2020 well into the new year.
Workplace studies suggest that some goals fail because of deficiencies within the letter of the goal itself. Ultimate success is also dictated, however, by employee attitudes and perceptions toward those goals. Research demonstrates that employees who feel commitment toward your organizational goals are more likely to achieve them. Conversely, if employees don’t care about achieving your 2021 goals, they probably won’t. Unfortunately for legal practitioners, fostering commitment in the workplace is like finding commitment in dating – it’s complicated.
Social scientists define commitment as an affective or emotional attachment to an organization that causes employees to identify with and enjoy membership within that organization. In other words, it’s a psychological state that binds an individual to a firm or company. Employee survey data reveals a strong positive correlation between commitment and fairness, meaning employee commitment levels generally go up as employee perceptions of organizational justice increase. As you may have guessed, fairness vacuums in organizations result in a dramatic reduction in employee commitment. Commitment in the workplace is ultimately an employee decision influenced by positive perceptions of organizational expectations, systems, and institutions. When employees commit to your goals, the goals are more likely to be achieved, paving the way for incremental improvements in 2021. But when employees commit to your organization, the possibilities for engagement are endless.
To assist in taking the first step toward endless possibility, I have compiled a list of three ‘commitment killers’ that every leader should know about, along with a few action items to mitigate the risks and champion fairness in your 2021 goals:
Commitment Killer #1: Lack of Distributive Justice
Distributive justice refers to employee perceptions of fairness stemming from the output of a managerial decision. In the context of goal setting, employee attitudes are based on the fairness of the directives laid out within the goal itself.
A goal that is overly general or vague creates psychological tension, as humans are wired to gravitate toward certainty over ambiguity. When faced with unclear directives, employees may feel that they’ve been put in an unfair situation with no defined vision of success or path forward. Similarly, a goal may be seen as confusing if it conflicts with other directed goals or is at odds with your organizational values. From unclear goals flows unclear expectations, which create downstream inequities in performance evaluations and staffing decisions.
If the goal is sufficiently specific but too difficult, employees will perceive the expectation as unrealistic. Rather than commit their best effort and risk probable failure, it is a psychologically safer approach for them to reject the goal entirely. On the opposite end of the spectrum, goals that are too easy don’t require much commitment to achieve, so workers are unlikely to exert extra effort or take them seriously, resulting in negligible gains in performance.
When assessing if your goals are fair, try to answer the following questions with empathy:
If I were the worker, would I find these goals to be clear and concise?
Do the goals align with our held values, both personal and professional?
Are quantifiable targets in line with industry standards, business conditions, and recently documented performance outputs?
Will employees find these goals challenging yet realistic given their resources?
Commitment Killer #2: Lack of Procedural Justice
Procedural justice focuses on employee faith in the fairness of the underlying decision-making processes. The goal setting process may stem from a company’s formal procedures and policies, but also from corporate customs, culture, and the unwritten rules of how agendas are set. A system perceived as fair increases employee motivation and drives organizational citizenship — a deeper level of commitment that attaches not only to the goal, but the organization overall. Organizational citizenship is similarly correlated with employees being more likely to exhibit extra effort and take on additional discretionary projects that do not form part of their core duties.
Systemic inequities are harder to identify for many leaders because they find themselves so entrenched in an organization’s culture that they struggle to see beyond or assess it from an objective perspective. There is also a sense of elusiveness to procedural fairness, as a particular process can be equitable for some and inequitable for others, requiring leaders to think empathetically and, again, outside of themselves.
While difficult to identify and root out the processes that test employee faith in the system, it is not impossible. Leaders can take the following first steps to drive more positive employee perceptions of the goal setting process:
Conduct an honest moral inventory of your current goal setting process with the HR department or an outside consultant to determine if it’s working for everyone.
Integrate new controls and oversight into your existing processes to make them more transparent and equitable.
Review the rosters of goal setting meetings and brainstorm sessions to determine if all critical stakeholders have a seat at the table.
Solicit and carefully weigh employee feedback through surveys and manager check-ins to uncover new pain points related to how goals are created.
Commitment Killer #3: Lack of Interactional Justice If distributive justice focuses on the fairness of any given decision, and procedural justice assesses the underlying process that yields the decision, then interactional justice analyzes the manner in which that decision is disseminated. As leaders are the evangelists of organizational policy, they are typically tasked with communicating annual goals and expectations to employees. Research demonstrates that bosses who are kind, considerate, and respectful in these interactions have employees who experience increased feelings of organizational commitment. Before you decide to enroll in charm school, note that interactional justice is the least influential of the three types of justice discussed. In other words, being able to work over a crowd with a beaming smile will not overcome glaring deficiencies in goals or the goal setting process.
Interactional justice isn’t all style over substance, as the content of your messaging also counts. Exchanges in which managers share access to pertinent information and offer insights into the rationale behind the decisions are more likely to drive employee feelings of organizational commitment. Studies show that leaders who take the time to explain the ‘why’ behind their decisions satisfy the employee’s need for certainty (the same need that is frustrated by the vague or unclear goals discussed in Commitment Killer #1). Tying back to human needs for social interaction, being made to feel ‘in the loop’ drives feelings of group identification and inclusion, even if the employee was effectively excluded from the decision-making process itself.
In assessing how goals are communicated to employees in your organization, consider the following points:
Humans are social animals who need quality interpersonal relationships and interactions to thrive and perform at their best.
Taking the time to offer radical context as to the ‘why’ behind your goals will earn employee commitment, while barking orders will likely lose it.
Fair and respectful interactions should be cornerstones to a successful organizational culture. If you can’t provide them, your competitors will.
Overinvest in kindness: it’s free!
About the Author:
Nick Tiger serves as Senior Counsel for Capital One and provides legal support to multiple business units within the customer contact centers. Nick is very active with Capital One’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DIB) initiatives, and regularly speaks to leaders at conferences and summits about the importance of applying equity and inclusion analysis to real world business problems and processes. Nick holds a BA in Social Psychology from Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, a JD from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and is currently enrolled in Industrial & Organizational Psychology coursework at Harvard Extension School. In the free time he has left, Nick can be found renovating his fixer-upper log cabin located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
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