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Commitment-Based Management Approach to Aligning Teams, Improving Productivity and Culture Change
By Tony Carew

Context

While undertaking mediation work for a Regional Council (a local government organisation in Australia) that was a recent amalgamation of smaller councils, the then Chief Executive Officer (CEO) shared the concerns and frustrations he was experiencing with regard to the senior leadership team’s vision of delivering timely and cost efficient services to the community due to workforce issues.

Most of the workforce was not connected with the vision. The majority remained emotionally connected to the previous smaller councils they had worked for, which were also part the local community they lived in, to which they were deeply committed. The CEO and the leadership team were leaders with few followers because they were not winning these people over emotionally.

The key issues the leaders identified to be resolved were:

Specific examples of the above issues were:

The change program

In consultation with the CEO and the leadership team an action-oriented Commitment Based Management (CBM) program was designed, which included:

The essence of the program was facilitating the development of robust conversational practices that are essential for effective leadership, in which the operational norm becomes making reliable commitments and the efficient coordination of action throughout the organisation. This constitutes significant cultural change.

One-to-one interviews 

The most time consuming and challenging part of the program, the interviews enabled the CEO to outline the intention of the program and reaffirm participants’ commitment to the vision and mission. Together, we clarified the fundamental commitments of each leader’s role and engaged in an extensive constructive review of each person’s performance, inviting self-assessments and ensuring genuine praise for successes in the fulfillment of commitments. The CEO also made clear what improvements he required (conditions of satisfaction) in each leader’s performance.

The outcome of the conversations was a collaboratively developed commitment document for each leader identifying coaching objectives, project description, the areas of improvement the project would address, Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s), milestones, time frames (minimum 6 months) and who the project will involve (customers and performers). Each person was asked to publicly confirm their commitment to the enactment of their document.

The individual documents were the basis for overall mutually and explicitly agreed team objectives (commitments) and the context for the design of a learning program to develop the conversational practices that would enable the attainment of team objectives.

Workshops 

Six 4-hour workshops were scheduled over 11 months to introduce the ontological distinctions, CBM principles and conversational practices to shift the team towards a different level of engagement with each other and with teams they led.

A common feature of the workshops was the ongoing conversation around the CEO’s conditions of satisfaction and progress towards satisfying these conditions. During the first workshop it was evident there was distrust within the team, such as the rolling of eyes when particular people spoke and a wide display of other disrespectful behaviors towards others. This gradually shifted as participants become fully aware of the many subtle and not so subtle ways they had developed disrespectful mannerisms towards each other and the consequences of such behaviour.

Individual coaching sessions

In line with the coaching objectives within individual commitment documents the coaching conversations focused on building awareness of leaders’ behaviors, shifting to more resourceful Ways of Being and building adaptive resilience. Examples of specific coaching objectives were:

Eight sessions of 1.5 hours were interspersed between workshops. Important shifts in Way of Being and behavior started to emerge during the third workshop and third coaching session. The leaders began to develop momentum with their project work and a collective lighter mood in the workplace was evident. During the fourth workshop people were more relaxed with one another, more willing to listen and less defensive behaviors were on display.

Team coaching at monthly executive and leadership meetings

The purpose of team coaching was to tune into the language of the team in how they interacted and coordinated with one another. I could hear the commitment and passion of each team member in delivering services to the community, however they were not a team. Consistent with what been observed in the early workshops, there was finger pointing, people being cut off in mid sentence and defensive behaviors. This seemed to be indicative of the norm of how people related to each other in this workplace.

The ongoing conversation around the CEO’s conditions of satisfaction and progress towards satisfying these conditions was built into the meetings. After some initial reluctance and tension, a recommendation for the weekly sharing of information across directorates for thirty minutes was accepted. Once resolved, the team moved forward and began to share information more openly about what was happening within their departments and more importantly what was happening for them personally in their roles.

On-the-job project work 

Project work was intended to have leaders engage their team members to achieve specific KPI’s, milestones and project objectives through opening up different conversations with their teams to change conversational practices and embed a commitments-based approach to working together. Project examples were the development and implementation of:

A key question continually asked at meetings was, “Where have promises been broken that were the cause of frustration and distrust?” One consequence of continually asking this question was three Directors initiating second projects. The first was about Planning and Building Applications exceeding statutory timeframes and the second related to development and implementation of local laws where time frames had been exceeded due to lack of participation from internal performers. This was a significant breakthrough in accountability as the Executive team was now prepared to declare breakdowns and work collaboratively for initiating new practices across directorates.

Outcomes

In the final two hour closing workshop a number of interesting pieces of information were shared.

Contributing success factors

© Newfield Institute

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