The extraordinary art of using commitment as a tool to exercise free will


The first thought I had when asked to write a piece on commitment for a commitment-phobic new generation was one of deep fear. In my decade-long agency and consulting career, I have been big on moving on when one needs to, refusing to hold on to loyalties that are not necessary, and doing what works best for personal goals and needs. Will a piece on commitment not make me a fraud?

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As it turns out, it does not.

Commitment is perhaps one of the many things we have started to look at in an unnecessarily rigid manner, one that no longer works, least of all for millennials. ‘Your commitment works only if it works for me,’ the world seems to tell us. But nothing could be further from the truth. I am committed to my own creative satisfaction and professional goals just as much as I am committed to making the professional relationship work. It is not a binary, either-or situation. Nothing in life and work usually is.

On the other side of the fence, there are those who value their freedom and fear that a commitment will tie them down. They are afraid to think through before making a commitment, because just how much can words matter? They attach too many conditions and clauses that will help them get out as soon as the relationship or the task at hand gets even a little unpleasant. We are almost afraid to work through small inconveniences towards shared goals. This is perhaps not the best way to approach creative freedom and putting a premium on personal needs and goals. None of us can work in isolation. No matter how long or short an association is or is intended to be, the choice of whether or not to mindfully navigate through some of the unpleasantness, the boring days, the thought-through promises and commitments, and the willingness to go the extra mile can make or break relationships and worse, reputations. Moving on does not always have to mean immediate disengagement. Closure is key, no matter how hard or unnecessary it feels in that moment.

Honouring your commitments, some unsaid, some not, and making your words matter will leave you empowered. How, you ask? It all starts with a good, objective conversation. Most people are open to nuanced conversations and are usually more reasonable than we give them credit for.

Making a commitment lets you decide what, how much, and for how long you can do something 

What is more empowering that setting expectations? Need to move on from an organisation? Commit to a handover schedule. Want to make sure you have enough time to complete a project? Tell your client. A conversation ensures you have a nuanced way to inform the other party that you can only commit to a timeline or results on the basis of what you can control. 

It lets you define what you can’t or will not do

The art of negotiation calls for give and take. No professional conversation is ever bereft of that. But when you have a conversation before you commit or not commit to something, you get the hard part of refusals out of the way even before you get on with the engagement, or disengagement in some cases. Of course, in several organisational setups, a firm ‘no’ can cost a relationship. But if relationship is based on a weak foundation, you probably saw it coming.

You get to define the commitments you need from the other party

Clarifying your own end of the bargain gives you the opportunity to outline the dependencies clearly. Whether it is a client committing to the end date of the project, your employer committing to your last date in the organisation, or the pricing and payout schedule – putting all possible scenarios on the table manages expectations like nothing else.

To clarify, a conversation like this works only when our own rationale is fair and thought through. It is about reaching an outcome that allows both parties the breathing space and trust to get into the agreement without doubts and concerns. If the idea is to exploit the other party, no matter which side of the ‘power equation’ you are on, your chances of achieving the desired outcome is close to none. And it is definitely not a sustainable approach to professional or personal relationships. But you already knew that!

If you have a tough conversation or decision coming up at the workplace, here are a few more reads on the art and science of it :

  1. Tough decisions entrepreneurs make
  2. Workplace work ethics – no matter how casual it is
  3. How to make a choice between two amazing job offers?
  4. A quick guide to deal with lazy co-workers
  5. 5 tips for managing the digital workforce of your startup


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