Psychology Today: Here To Help


How can you obtain emotional commitment?

Good products priced properly allow you to make a presentation, but it is usually insufficient to obtain the crucial order. Job related competence may allow you to get the interview, but it is usually insufficient to obtain the offer.

Logical arguments may win the minds of your Board of Directors but if you fail to win their hears will they really support you?

Stanford University sociologist Jeffrey Pfeffer has written a book which nicely blends academic research and practical advise. (Managing With Power: politics and influence in organizations. Boston:Harvard Business School Press, 1994.

Pfeffer focuses on techniques to obtain emotional commitment.

One obvious way of gaining commitment is to do favors for others. “I’ll scratch your back and then you scratch my back.”

It probably works better in reverse. You can build commitment by having others do favors for you! Says Pfeffer:

"If a person complies with my request for a favor, self-perception will tend to cause that person to think he or she likes me--why do a favor for someone you don't like? A cycle may begin, in which I do you a small favor, and you feel obliged to repay me. But the very act of your doing something for me helps to commit you to me, and thus further cements the relationship."

Pfeffer cites the case of Jimmy Carter's successful win of the presidency in 1976. His strategy was simple: to build an outsider's campaign, recruit outsiders to run it for you. In 1974, Carter approached Democrats who had lost their primaries and asked for their help. This group became the core of his campaign. As Carter himself states:

"Contrary to what many people assume, the most effective way to gain a person's loyalty is not to do him or her a favor, but to let that person do one for you."

One of our clients worked with us to utilize this technique in building up his consulting practice. He would approach contacts and ask them to critique his business plan, make the plan better, and to refer him to others whose advise he could obtain. He didn’t try to sell. He tried to ask for favors. Through this process, he incorporated new ideas into the plan, making the entire program stronger. More importantly, as highly placed people began to assist him they became committed to his ideas. "During my first five years in business, I never asked a soul for business. But I sure did ask for help!"

The same principle also applies to job hunting. One of the axioms in networking is "Never Ask Anyone for a Job." Such a direct question puts both parties at risk of being embarrassed. A more effective way is to enlist the supports of contacts in your effort to decide which career option makes the most sense of you. Let them help you make a decision. And then watch them help you implement it! For example, here is a script used by one of our clients:

"At this point in my career, I feel like I am at a fork in the road. One option is to continue down the same road as I came from. But there is another road, slightly off from the main road I have been traveling. I'm looking for your help to help me think through which option makes the best sense for me."

Notice that the focus is not on asking for job leads. The focus is on strategic direction. But once someone points you down the road strategically, they are also emotionally committed to helping you implement it successfully.

Letting someone help you commits that person to you. Once people have invested their time, they will not want you to fail-------it would make them look bad.

Moving People Out of Commitment

Getting commitment is a vital management task. Of equal importance of managing de-commitment.

Again, appeals to logic to reverse course may win the mind. True de-commitment means the previous behavior is broken at both a conceptual and emotional level. You have got to manage both. This is particularly true for CEOs who are trying to get their Board to reverse course.

Pfeffer suggests that one way to do this is to suggest to people that they were not REALLY responsible for their past decisions--they faced external pressures to act as they did.

They were responding to the situation at the time. But now the situation is different. They are free to do something else.

Notice the absence of attack on the individual. The focus is on pointing out how external conditions have changed. For example:

In the movie Twelve Angry Men, eleven out of twelve jurors vote to convict a young man accused of murder. How can the lone hold out get those jurors to change their minds? He argues that the evidence does indeed make the defendant appear to be guilty, but the defense lawyer did a poor job. Voting guilty is a reasonable thing to do. Given the poor job of the defense attorney, would the other eleven commit to spending one hour to discuss the case?

Because of the way in which he frames his request, the jurors are not asked to admit they were wrong. He shifts the focus from the guilt to the poor job of the defense lawyer. They only have to agree to talk for an additional hour. Their commitment to talk is an agreement to examine the evidence in more detail. There is no attack on the jurors.

Direct attacks almost always fail to produce genuine change in commitment.

We were asked by the owner of a company to achieve a behavioral turn-around of the firm’s best salesman. He was an affirmative action law suit waiting to happen. The company did not want to terminate its top producer, and the salesman knew it.

Threats of legal action and personal liability were shrugged off.

How could we get him to change his behavior?

We knew we could never achieve the turn-around by attacking the salesman. We stressed that his past behavior was entirely appropriate or even “cute” given the kinds of employees the company had in the 1960's and 1970's. But the circumstances have changed and new behavior is required. Notice the absence of attack on the individual. The focus of our talk was the situation.

Having the CEO take that approach give us the leverage we needed to help the salesman de-commit.

Dr. Laurence J. Stybel and Maryanne Peabody are co-founders of Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire. Since 1979, the focus of the firm is helping companies achieve “smooth transitions” for very senior executives: retained search, coaching, and retained search. Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire is a strategic partner of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts. There are twenty six offices in six countries to serve AIM members. Contact Maryanne Peabody at 781-736-0900 for more information or visit the website, “The Board of Directors Career Resource Center” at