Addressing the Competing Commitments Inside Your Culture

June 9, 2023 Jamie Notter


The reason people roll their eyes at your core values posters is because you’re only living them half way, and that’s because you have commitments inside your culture that contradict or compete with the core value itself. But if you can see the competing commitments (which you will, if you do our culture assessment), you can reconcile them and build a much stronger and authentic culture.


Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey wrote an outstanding book called Immunity to Change. They are experts in adult development, and one of their core concepts is the idea of “competing commitments.” We all have commitments or goals or things that we want to achieve. But when you examine your own behavior, you’ll realize that you are often sabotaging yourself. You may have a commitment to be healthier and lose weight, but when you look at your behavior, you find you’re eating too much and choosing not to exercise like you planned. Why is that?

It’s because there are hidden, competing commitments that drives your ineffective behavior. In the case of weight loss, it may be a commitment to achieving comfort through food or achieving relaxation through “down time” sitting on the couch (rather than exercising). It’s a really important concept, because it highlights that resistance to change is not simply opposition to something—it’s driven by another commitment, something that is important to you, even though you may not realize it. Seeing that commitment, and figuring out how to reconcile it with your original commitment, is critical for change to be successful.

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This dynamic also plays out in your workplace culture. Most cultures have clear “commitments,” often in the form of core values. But having a commitment to something like transparency or collaboration is not enough—you have to dig under the surface to see if there are any competing commitments that will get in the way of people living that value fully.

For example, based on our research using the aggregate data from our culture assessment, collaboration is an extremely common commitment inside cultures. Almost every organization we work with demonstrates a clear commitment to building a culture where people are willing to help each other out. “Sharing the workload” is the single highest-scoring data point among the 64 in our assessment.

What they don’t see (until we show them the data, that is) is that they also frequently have a commitment to giving groups inside the organization autonomy, making collaboration more difficult. Territories inside the organization are clear (including departments, units, or layers in the hierarchy), and getting groups of people to collaborate across those lines is not easy. It happens, but not without extra effort and often frustration.

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This is why people roll their eyes at the core values posters in the office kitchen. It’s not that collaboration never happens, but they have experienced so many instances where collaboration was awkward or difficult, that it doesn’t feel authentic to list it as a core value, because it’s not being lived fully.

But resolving the conflict between the competing commitments is possible. You don’t have to give up on the idea of groups having autonomy, but you have to build in ways for the autonomous groups to collaborate more smoothly. In other words, you can still have fences in between your departments, but make them two-feet high so it’s easy to step over them, rather than the nine-foot-high chain link fences with razor wire that you currently have.

In our upcoming new book, Culture Change Made Easy, we’ll show you concrete examples of how to do that.

Jamie Notter

Jamie is a co-founder and culture strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders create amazing workplace cultures that drive greater performance and impact. He brings thirty years of experience to his work designing and managing culture, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is the co-author of four popular business books, including the award-winning Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement, and his fall 2023 release, Culture Change Made Easy. He holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.