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Balancing Commitment and Compliance

By Joe Fuyuno

Change management consultants will often talk about the importance of getting stakeholder commitment rather than compliance with any new initiative. “Compliance” is seen as bad – it brings up images of regulations, following the rules, and top-down leadership. No one likes compliance. It seems unexciting, old-fashioned, and dictatorial. The other side is commitment – an empowering word implying employee inclusion, engagement, and creativity. Everyone wants to have stakeholders that are committed, not just compliant with a new initiative. Instead of following orders, we want to change to take on a life of its own.

However, when considering organizational change in the real world, compliance can be a perfectly valid goal. Not all initiatives are complex, transformative changes that need universal employee commitment.

When is compliance enough?

In today’s workplace, competition for attention is at a premium. With multiple information streams requiring attention and action, you wouldn’t have a mandatory, 2-hour food safety and community engagement information session about the need to empty the office fridge on Fridays. Compliance is often enough.

When facilitating interactions along the continuum of commitment and compliance, change practitioners must understand an organization’s culture and use a “volume knob” on the plans and initiatives they put together. Ask:

  • How much input do you need from this stakeholder group to shape change? Asking for stakeholder commitment can help you understand a problem and identify gaps. If you already understand the problem for which the change initiative is solving, invite a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down from stakeholders.
  • What else is taking up the attention or “mind-share” of this audience? Commitment requires a significant amount of time, whereas compliance buys us mind-share for later. With the increased rate of change saturation, be cognizant of current projects and programs before embarking on a commitment initiative.
  • Can we define all the behavior changes that need to happen for this audience? Any change aimed at altering behavior must be accompanied by motivation and reinforcement. Involve a highly-engaged team to pinpoint the behaviors that will have the greatest impact on results and determine the need for compliance or commitment based on your distance from the ideal state.
  • What level of confidence do these stakeholders have in their leadership? The path to compliance or commitment begins with a relationship between employees and leadership. Consider what level of compliance could be achieved based on the current level of leadership engagement and decide where commitment can be built on that foundation.
  • What is the level of change fatigue? Seasoned change practitioners can easily spot when a stakeholder group is overwhelmed and overtaxed from change saturation. To gauge your organizations level of change readiness, start with a survey or focus group to identify if the team will be able to meet the demands of commitment.

Getting Results with Effective Change Management

There is a continuum between compliance and commitment for stakeholders faced with change, and effective OCM practitioners know where an initiative should fall on that curve. Stakeholders use emotional time and genuine effort to support change. Assuming these are bottomless resources can lead to organizational inefficiency.

Compliance can be a scary word. When dealing with organizational changes, however, it shouldn’t be. Effective OCM should not only help leaders clarify their message, but also pitch to an organization’s culture by understanding what messages at what volume will resonate – without going overboard to get the results you need.