Why a Culture of Compliance Can’t Compete with a Culture of Commitment

December 4, 2023

Why is it that some of the most meticulous, well-designed, and ambitious culture-change initiatives never seem to take off? Well, DEI initiatives don’t exist in a vacuum. They involve vulnerable, fallible, diverse people who have different needs, expectations, perceptions and capacities. While fear-based tactics and threats of punishment might force compliance, compliance will never foster true inclusion, unleash the power of diversity, or create incubators of innovation. Commitment does that. 

So yes, you can’t force commitment (that’s just compliance with a smile), but you can encourage it! Keep reading and we’ll discuss some key characteristics of committed and compliant cultures and give you some practical ways to encourage a culture of commitment across your organization. 

Head or Heart?

Do your team members nod their heads through your kickoff slides, agree with bulleted lists of goals and outcomes, take the surveys, and still don’t seem totally on board? It may be that their head understands your initiative, but their hearts may not yet feel the importance. 

Humans make decisions through a combination of cognition and emotion. While some routine decisions may appear to be purely cognitive (or even automatic), commitment is a choice that can’t be made without involving emotion. 

I’m compliant: I’m all head, no heart. 

I’m committed: I use my head and my heart.

Understanding the basic “why” of an initiative is an important first step, but your team can’t stay there. In order to overcome a compliance mentality and have your team be truly committed, you have to encourage them to feel the initiative’s importance as much as they understand its importance.  

If you’re realizing that your team needs to feel, as well as understand, that importance of your initiative, here are some things you can try:

  1. Amplify vulnerable voices. Chances are, your organization needs a cultural transformation because vulnerability is being punished instead of rewarded. This, in many instances, disproportionately affects marginalized groups who will uniquely benefit from a DEI initiative. Identify team members who are more committed to the idea already, ask them to share how this initiative will change their individual experiences in the workplace.
  1. Explain the “behave until you believe” principle. There will be members of your team that may be willing to be compliant, but haven’t yet caught the vision. There’s nothing wrong with that (at first). The benefits of the initiative will be more obvious as your teams build trust in each other and work together for your common goals. Consistent behavior that aligns with those goals, coupled with the determination to reach commitment eventually, will foster belief.  

Who Decides Change?

If your teams are struggling to be committed to change, it may be that they don’t understand the purpose of the changes themselves. This isn’t a change issue, this is a purpose issue, and the previous section is likely the culprit. Forcing others to change, especially in specific, constricting ways, rarely leads to lasting, impactful change. In fact, it may not lead to any change at all. 

Compliant employees might follow new policy in order to keep their job, but it’s committed employees that change for good. They understand the purpose behind the changes in place and adapt their behavior to reflect those changes. They choose to change because they know why they need to change, but maybe more importantly, they also choose how they change. They own the change process. This is commitment.

I’m compliant: I have to change.

I’m committed: I choose to change.

You can help your team members choose to change when you:

  1. Offer options. Let your teams pick specific action items that interest and motivate them. Depending on the needs of your team, you may need to develop a list to choose from, or help them brainstorm in context. Regardless of how they get there, if your team members feel like they have a choice in how to change, they’ll feel more committed to the initiative as a whole.
  1. Paint the big picture. Once your teams understand the end result you’re looking for, give them the opportunity to fill in some of the gaps themselves. You may try a framework like: “We want to create an environment where everyone feels safe to learn and make mistakes. What could we do differently to make that happen on this team?”

Fear or Flourishing?

When trying to convince your organization to back a DEI initiative, it’s easy to drift into doomsday territory. It may be tempting to rattle off a list of all the bad things that will happen if people don’t do what’s asked of them. After all, there’s a lot at stake! Fear-based tactics might force your organization into compliance, but threats, punishment, and shame won’t lead to committed teams.  

A culture of rewarded vulnerability, or psychological safety, is one motivated by positive outcomes. Team members are more likely to feel committed to an initiative that they know will benefit them. They will also be more likely to encourage their colleagues to follow suit. Shared goals will help unify your organization and foster commitment. But the shared goal can’t be “avoid X,” it must be “build Y.” 

I’m compliant: I worry about the negative result if we don’t do this.

I’m committed: I understand the positive result if we do.

Committed teams that are determined to become sanctuaries of inclusion will consequently become incubators of innovation. That’s a true and powerful statement. Here are some ways to get your team motivated by the right kinds of consequences:

  1. Watch your language. If you find yourself leaning on fear-based consequences when trying to convince your team of the importance of your initiative, couple the negative with a positive outcome. For example: “If we don’t intentionally change our company culture, we won’t keep our talented staff that help us be successful. If we do, we’ll be creating a safer, more effective environment for our employees to be even more innovative.”
  1. Identify positive outcomes along the way. As your teams progress through your initiative, be vocal about the positive changes you’re already seeing. Connect those changes to the benefits you originally presented as part of your initiative. Help them see their progress. Help them feel the differences. Help them keep their sights on the end results.   

Is There Intentionality?

Compliant team members are careless team members. They’ll do what they have to, if they have to. Committed team members understand how their small, everyday actions impact what you’re trying to accomplish. They’ll infuse your organizational goals, as well as their own goals, into the fabric of everything they do. And you won’t have to ask them to do it. It’s part of who they are.

I’m compliant: I put in minimal thought/effort.

I’m committed: I put in intentional thought/effort.

While you can’t force intentionality, you may try this:

  1. Start with being observant. Going from minimal effort to intentional effort can be a big jump. A good starting point is being observant, because being intentional requires that you first know what’s going on. Ask your team members to become more aware of what they’re doing, how they show up at work, and why that matters. Once they’re familiar with and more aware of their small, specific actions, they will let those actions inform future behavior. 
  1. Ask people what they think. It might be as simple as that. Maybe your team members don’t even think to think about these types of things. Get the ball rolling and let them come to their own conclusions.

Checking In, or Checking Out?

Accountability is a large part of any successful DEI initiative. This doesn’t mean that it’s a comfortable or happily anticipated experience for everyone involved. Compliant team members won’t hold themselves individually accountable for their actions, and it can be difficult (not to mention frustrating) to feel like you’re constantly micro-managing behavior. Don’t fall into this trap.

I’m compliant: I must be closely managed. 

I’m committed: I have a strong sense of accountability.

While accountability doesn’t normally precede commitment, there are things you can do to prepare your organization to be accountable once they’re committed. Establishing an expectation of accountability early on will pay dividends in your cultural transformation journey later on. Try this:

  1. Ask about experiences first, not actions. Compliant team members are not going to want to provide an extensive report on the actions they’ve taken to support your initiative, but they may be willing to talk about their experiences. Start the conversation around accountability with a question like: “As you know, we’ve been working to make sure that everyone feels like they can contribute here. What have you noticed in that process? Do you feel like you can contribute on your team? Do you think your colleagues feel the same way?”
  1. Ask your team to hold you accountable. Modeling accountability is one of the best ways to encourage others to be accountable. Be specific in your requests. Share your personal goals (related to the goals of your initiative) and ask your team to check in with you, let you know when you’ve fallen short, or identify ways that you could be better. It’ll be easier to reciprocate once you’ve built a one-sided relationship of accountability, and once your teams know that they can fall short and not be punished. 

Whose Job is This Anyway?

Whether or not individual team members are solely responsible for your dysfunctional company culture (chances are, they aren’t), there is power in taking responsibility for it anyway. Your team members will be more committed when they can recognize the personal impact they have on your organization, whether good or bad.  

I’m compliant: This is just a job. 

I’m committed: I belong and contribute to this culture. 

Here are some suggestions to encourage lasting commitment to not only your initiative, but also your organization as a whole: 

  1. Showcase the good. If a colleague can’t recognize their positive and helpful contributions to your team culture, it’s your job to help them see the good they’re doing. Express gratitude, be specific, and be consistent. When they know that their efforts are being noticed and appreciated, they’ll be more committed to continue putting in that effort. 
  1. Model responsibility. You, as the one leading the initiative, have a major impact on your organizational culture. It won’t do you any good pretending like your impact has always been positive. Chances are, your colleagues won’t grasp the concept of responsibility at first. Be honest with yourself and with others. Acknowledging your contributions to culture, both positive and negative, will let others know that they are safe to do the same. 

If your organization is compliant, but not committed, to your current DEI initiative–don’t stress. With small, intentional changes on your part you can nudge them in the right direction. A key part of fostering commitment is meeting individuals where they are. Don’t punish them for merely complying, encourage them to understand and feel the purpose behind the initiative. Give them enough relevant options so that they choose to change. Motivate them with positivity and focus on goals with benefits that they care about. Teach them to act intentionally, hold themselves accountable, and see themselves as integral, impactful parts of your organization. 

With a little bit of effort and authenticity during your cultural transformation journey, you’ll be well on your way to sanctuaries of inclusion and incubators of innovation. It all starts with commitment.

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