The Commitment Ladder (A Short Course in Increasing Employee Engagement)

A mentor of mine, the late Gordy Myers, was a master of organizational change. Over the years he watched leaders create change plans that presumed the people impacted by the change would be on board or get on board quickly. Rather than get dazzled by the plans or the bright future ahead, Gordy was a “commitment” guy. Knowing that change would fail without the requisite level of commitment, he came up with this diagnostic to help leaders assess where their people were when it came to the forthcoming change.

What Gordy realized was that most leaders’ default is to want everyone to be on the “Make It Happen” rung. To get people there, they can oversell a change and the imagined future it represents.

But people don’t stay on a given rung. If leaders do their jobs well, they move up. As the change process wears on and the bright shiny vision fades, people often move down. This “change fatigue” is a major reason why 70% of change efforts stall or fail.

Gordy’s genius was realizing that the key to success wasn’t getting everyone to “Make It Happen.” In any change – even change people want! –  endings and losses are involved: familiar ways of working are gone, and often close work relationships can grow distant or disappear.

Given these realities, getting everyone amped about change isn’t the way to boost or maintain commitment. Gordy coached leaders to look at the specific needs of stakeholder groups and find out what it would take to move up one rung. If you help someone who’s at “Work Against” step up to “Let It Happen,” you’ve reduced resistance and made your job easier.

Here are some strategies you can use to increase engagement and move people up the commitment ladder:

  • Identify the key individuals and groups that can impact the change process for better or worse. Who is most effected? Who are the key influencers? What’s ending for them?
  • Tailor your change message to each group. Given what’s ending, what’s most relevant for that person/group? Make sure you include a strong “Why” in your message – what’s the compelling reason/rationale for the change? Thinking about “what’s in it for them” is also important. Make sure it’s of genuine benefit, not something you want them to think is beneficial – if they think you’re putting lipstick on a pig, they’ll move down the ladder.
  • Get their input about what would increase their commitment to take the first steps. Once people get moving, many of their objections turn out to be imagined or inconsequential. They don’t need to buy-in to the whole change, just the next steps in the process.
  • Check in early and often. Their legitimate objections need to be addressed, and new issues and problems will crop up. To become resilient, help teams find ways to, as the US Marines say, “improvise, adapt, and overcome.”
  • Recognize even small successes. When people feel awkward at a task, wins don’t feel like wins. Point them out and celebrate them! Highlight those accomplishments individually and publicly. Show the team they’re progressing. As people feel more competent and successful, their commitment will go up.

What tips would you add to this list? Feel free to leave a reply below or on LinkedIn.


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