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Why Leaders Need to Ask, “Is That a Promise?”

Requesting clearer commitments can mobilize teams and lead to better execution.

The compliance department of a large organization wasn’t getting the paperwork it needed from the sales team. This was holding up the deals that sales had worked so hard to close, and everyone was frustrated. Finally, one of the sales leaders proposed that the compliance department train the salespeople in the correct protocol. “Sure, I think we can do that,” the compliance leader responded, a bit casually. Everyone seemed ready to move on, but the sales leader persisted: “Is that a promise?”

In today’s complex and interdependent organizations, managers increasingly rely on others to take initiative and be accountable. With broader spans of control, increasing specialization, shorter launch cycles, and greater use of shared services, managers simply cannot deliver if their teams and staff in other functions don’t step up to the plate.

Yet many leaders are surprisingly sloppy when it comes to asking for commitments from others. They either accept the sort of ambiguous commitment given by the compliance leader above, or they do the hard work of laying out a vision, an opportunity, or a plan, then fail to ask others to commit to making it happen. “I don’t want to sound like I’m asking for permission,” said one executive I worked with. Unfortunately, this means many conversations end with no commitments at all.

Accepting such ambiguity is a big mistake. At the root of most disengaged teams, missed deadlines, and projects stuck in analysis paralysis, you will find unclear agreements, muddy expectations, and conflicting priorities. Too often, people are left wondering: What exactly does this new vision or plan mean for me? How should I prioritize my efforts when there is too much to do? How can I prepare for smooth handoffs, when I am not exactly sure of the plan?

The good news is that negotiating clear, strong commitments is a powerful strategy for mobilizing teamwork and execution. Far from asking for permission, frank and open conversations about commitments are an essential part of a culture of responsibility, ownership, and accountability. For example, in his 2012 Babson College case study, professor Jay Rao studied the secrets behind W.L. Gore’s 50-plus years of profitability, its 18 years on Fortunes “100 Best Companies to Work For” list, and its repeated awards for being one of the world’s most innovative companies. He found that the company focuses on voluntary “self-commitments” rather than assigned tasks. “Only the associate could make a commitment to do something — a task, a project, or a new role,” Rao wrote. “But once someone said, ‘I will do this,’ it was considered a near-sacred oath.”

Many leaders are surprisingly sloppy when it comes to asking for commitments from others.

Ultimately, commitment is always a personal choice. When you make an explicit request for someone’s commitment, you acknowledge their freedom to choose and open the door for them to take real responsibility. Consider a scenario in which a leader who has been struggling to mobilize his team around a new sales strategy finally comes right out and asks for what he wants (this story is a composite of actual conversations I have witnessed). “I’m asking you to spend 50 percent of your time on long-term sales,” he explains. “Are you ready to take that step?” His directness brings the conference room to life. “We would need more coaching,” say several account representatives. “That’s fine,” responds the leader. “Let’s schedule a few sessions later this month. Once you have that coaching, will you put the new strategy into practice?” Around the table, his team replies yes. As this leader has learned, until there is a clear proposition people can say yes to, all discussion of visions, plans, and priorities is hypothetical — inviting uncertainty, guesswork, and waste.

Of course, there is one giant caveat when using this approach. For people who value keeping their word (exactly the kind you want to work with!), making a commitment is a serious step. If you want real ownership, you need to create space for people to say no to commitments they cannot keep, and to propose their own solutions. For example, a top performer might tell the leader above, “I don’t know if I can do 50 percent. I might lose some sales in the current quarter. But I can commit to 30 percent now, and will check in again in a month to see if I can raise it.” As W.L. Gore’s results demonstrate, it is far more valuable to have one honest commitment like this one than all the lip service in the world.

To get started with your team, try ending each meeting by asking, “What are we committing to?” or “Are you comfortable committing to this?” When you launch a change initiative, ask yourself, “What am I asking my team to commit to?” Once you have asked, listen. As with the sales reps above, it’s likely people will need something from you to get the job done. Commitments are almost always two-way, and the onus is on you as the leader to get the conversation into the open.

At its simplest, leadership is the art of making and requesting commitments, listening to what others need, and following through. By mastering these practices, leaders can minimize bureaucracy and complexity while maximizing the teamwork that gets things done. Indeed, as W.L. Gore cofounder Bill Gore once said, “Most of us delight in going around the formal procedures and doing things the straightforward and easy way.” What could be more straightforward and simple than asking, “Is that a promise?”

Elizabeth Doty

Elizabeth Doty is a former lab fellow of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, founder of Leadership Momentum, and director of the Erb Institute’s Corporate Political Responsibility Taskforce at the University of Michigan.

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