Calculating Commitment

Commitment is a funny thing. You feel incredibly determined to do something one minute, only to find the feeling fleeting the next.

According to Heidi Reeder, an associate professor at Boise State University and author of “Commit to Win,” commitment is being psychologically attached to something and intending to stick with it no matter what. It’s a longer-term process and perspective than determination and willpower.

Being committed means you have skin in the game.

Reeder has identified four main factors that predict commitment, and she has since made connections from these findings to the workforce. Talent Managementspoke with Reeder on the topic. Edited excerpts follow.

How do you define commitment?

I think commitment is often misunderstood; [it’s] just considered an obligation in some cases. ‘I have to go to this event, but I don’t really want to go, but I’ve committed myself to it.’ I use the definition of commitment from social psychology research, and it’s pretty consistently defined as a psychological attachment to something and an intention to stay with it. That something could be a job, a project, a relationship, a business, a personal goal. It’s the idea of, ‘To what degree am I internally psychologically attached to this thing? Not looking at the outside and how others can influence me, but to what degree am I really attached?’

So there’s a difference between ‘I’m just going to be friends with this guy because I feel bad for him,’ and, ‘I’m really attached to this guy, and I really want to continue the friendship.’

How can commitment be developed?

It works kind of like an equation. The four factors are called ‘treasures,’ ‘troubles,’ ‘contributions’ and ‘choices.’ Some of the factors increase people’s commitment; some decrease people’s commitment. They’re originally rooted in economics, and then it went on to sociology, and then psychologists got a handle on it. Then there has been 40 years of research that shows these particular factors are effective at predicting how committed someone will be. The way that it goes is: The level of commitment is in large part predicted by treasures minus troubles plus contributions minuschoices.

Treasures are the things that we deeply value, whether it’s the job or the project. What do I get out of this? What are the benefits of it for me? Treasures and troubles are a cost-benefit analysis. What are the benefits? What do I get out of it? What does it bring to me? Troubles are what are the difficulties, what are the challenges, what are the things that I don’t like? The degree to which what I treasure about this commitment outweighs what’s troubling about it determines how satisfied I am. It determines the ‘want to’ part of the equation.

Some people think satisfaction should equal commitment. If you’re highly satisfied, you’ll be highly committed, but we know people can be highly unsatisfied but still get up that day and do what they need to do. It’s not just about satisfaction. What we have to add in next are contributions. Contributions are: ‘What have I already invested into this thing that I can’t get out?’ The more we contribute, the more we’ll stay committed even if the treasures-to-troubles ratio is going downhill.

Then the last piece is choices. Choices are: ‘What are my alternatives?’ When we have lots of other options that look attractive, we’ll be less committed to something that we’re doing even if it’s a good idea that we’re doing it. If we don’t have very many good options, then we’ll more likely stay committed to the commitment in front of us and be more attached to it.

The want-to part, as I mentioned, is if my treasures-to-trouble ratio is a positive ratio. In that case ‘I’m going to want to do this, I really love doing this, there’s hardly anything that’s getting in the way of doing it. I get all these benefits, it’s great.’ Have to do it is the second part of the equation. ‘I’ve contributed a lot, so it makes me feel like I have to keep at it.’ In behavioral economics it’s called the sunk-cost effect. ‘I’ve already gotten my degree to be an accountant, so now I have to be an accountant. I’ve already contributed all of this time, money and effort.’ Some people are also committed because they feel they don’t have another option — that’s the ‘choices’ part.


How can HR leaders use this idea?

I know that people’s commitment, my own or others, is going to be higher when there’s more to treasure about the assignment, there’s more to treasure about the work. All too often we assign people tasks and say, ‘Just do it,’ and we don’t really explain to them the meaning and value in the work. Maybe it seems like a small little task, but it’s actually part of a bigger picture. We need to remind ourselves, ‘Why am I working on this thing?’ Maybe I’m getting mad, maybe I’m getting frustrated, can I remind myself, ‘OK, this fits into this larger picture that I really do value, I really do treasure.’

We have things that we treasure about the work we do that are external to us — it’s the parking spot we get, the company car we get, the raise we get. But what’soften neglected and matters quite a bit are internal rewards that we get from working on a job — what you feel in the moment. “It’s rewarding just to do this work,” forget about the salary, forget about the perks. When it comes to the internal things that are rewarding,there are three elements of the work that people find intrinsically rewarding: job complexity, task importance and autonomy.

How can managers make their employees more committed?

Find ways to increase what folks will treasure about work. As one example, research has found that when people provide a reward at random, it seems to be more rewarding than if they knew the reward was coming. You get your paycheck every week, two weeks or month, you stop treasuring it after a while. What people can do if they want to increase commitment from other people is to layer on unexpected rewards. Do a random thing like send out unexpected thank-you notes or small gifts. Find a way to have employees treasure something about your workplace that is unique, that they can’t just get at every other place.

Second, reduce how much trouble there is in theorganization. Bullying is a major thing right now. New research has found that even people who are not bullied but witness others be bullied are more likely to quit. People start to question the morals of the company.

Most importantly, make sure you’re committed, too. Don’t just look at employees and say, ‘Why aren’t you committed?’ Make sure you know what you’re internally attached to and want to continue. A lot of us don’t stop and think about what our real commitments are. If we do that, there’s a chance we’ll say, ‘Why aren’t we spending more time doing that?’ You need to do it as a leader in order for your team to do it and pass the message on.