How to increase commitment in organizations

We often talk about the importance of leadership in organizations, but we rarely talk about the importance of membership. However without the commitment of membership, performance and leadership would not be possible. This is an article about membership and ways to increase membership commitment in organizations.

Membership is a two way street. An individual chooses to be a member, and the organization chooses to accept membership or not. An individual only truly commits to membership when they are willing to compromise their independence and accept the collective norms of the organization.

From an organizational point of view a member belongs when they meet the requirements, are willing to give up individual proclivities and are accepted by the others. This last factor is important. No matter how good you are at your job, if others don’t accept you, you will not have a career in that organization.

In the past membership commitment was relatively simple. You were in or out.
For instance, in a traditional hierarchical organization leadership was based on control and compliance, and membership on having a position inside the organizational structure. Commitment was based on lifetime employment and solidarity.

Nowadays membership is a much more complicated affair. Organizations are part of a global network of suppliers and customers. Boundaries demarcating ‘in or out’ are less clear. Leadership and membership has become much more fluid as a role and is based more and more on a voluntary relationship and short-term fulfilment of needs.

You can tell there is a commitment problem in your organization when your turn over is high, when there’s a lot of sick leave, when employees don’t want to spend extra time with their colleagues or when employees are not willing to go the extra mile to realize organizational goals.

We know that performance is higher when commitment is higher. Members in a highly committed organization are more willing to conform to group norms, are more communicative, display less turn over, and are more willing to exert effort on behalf of the organization. That is why organizations have to take a more pro-active approach to managing the commitment of membership nowadays.

There are many strategies to increase the commitment of membership in an organization based on organizational and social psychology (e.g. . Festinger (1950), Tajfel (1979). The strategy I use most when clients ask me to help them with commitment problems in their organization is based on the social exchange theory (Thibaut and Kelley,1959). Basically they say that commitment is based on a comparison of the rewards and costs of membership, mediated by the perception of alternatives, the investment made and the expectations of membership. That’s a whole mouth full, so let’s see what it means in practice.

In practice it means organizations can influence five factors to increase commitment. For instance you can increase the rewards by giving higher salaries than competing organizations and offering good secondary benefits like education. You can decrease the cost of membership by making the requirements for membership lower or allowing others to benefit from membership, even if they are not in the in-group. For instance Apple allows others to create applications for i-phone, and markets them, even if the inventors are not employees of Apple.

The mediating factors are less clear-cut but still possible to influence. Perception of alternatives for instance: if the labour market is employer driven people will be more committed to the organization they are in. You can influence the perception of alternatives through employer branding .

The second mediating factor is personal investment. If employees feel they have invested a lot to get where they are in the company, they will leave less quickly.  For instance, celebrate success publicly and create stories on your intranet about the employees that invested beyond the call of duty and got their reward.

The third factor is level of expectations. If from past experience employees don’t expect a lot from the work place and these expectations are exceeded by the organization, the commitment is high. For instance let’s say an employee has a family member that is ill, and you give them free time and support, even though you don’t have to by law. By example you show your commitment to them exceeding their expectations, and they will repay you in kind.

Commitment problems often come up in executive coaching as well. If you are coaching people who are wondering about their commitment you can use the social exchange framework to help them decide to stay or leave and if they stay to clarify how they can increase their feeling of commitment.

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