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What the Show about Nothing Taught Me about Commitment and Accountability

This year I made a commitment to myself that I would write and post a blog to my website once a month. Today I found myself struggling to come up with ideas to write about. The harder I tried, the more frustrated I became. So I decided I needed some inspiration. And where do I go for inspiration? The answer, of course, is old episodes of the show about nothing: Seinfeld. I randomly pulled a DVD off the shelf, popped it in the DVR, and started watching.

It just so happened it was the episode where Jerry is talking with a car rental agent about a car he had reserved:

Agent: “I’m sorry, Mr. Seinfeld, we don’t have any available cars.”

Jerry: “I don’t understand. I made a reservation. Do you have my reservation?”

Agent: “Yes, we do. Unfortunately we ran out of cars.”

Jerry: “But the reservation keeps the car here. That’s why you have the reservation.”

Agent: “I know why we have reservations.”

Jerry: “I don’t think you do. If you did, I’d have a car. See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation, and that’s really the most important part of the reservation, "the holding". Anybody can just take them.”

Once again, Seinfeld provided just the inspiration I needed. After watching this episode, I realized that there were some lessons to be learned here about accountability and my commitment to myself that I would write at least one blog every month. Let me explain.

As I said before, this year I made a commitment to write at least one blog a month for my website. To be honest, I don’t seem to find the time to write them, so I inevitably fall behind schedule. Now I have plenty of “legitimate” excuses (it takes time away from working with clients; basically, I had no idea how much time blogging was going to take when I committed to it, yada, yada, yada!)

Like the car rental agency in Seinfeld, which made a “commitment” to have a car ready for Jerry when he arrived at the counter, I made a “commitment” to write a certain number of blogs. Also, like the car rental agency, which did not live up to its commitment, I was not living up to mine.

It was easy to make this blog writing commitment—“Sure, I’ll do it.” But it was the action required after the commitment—in this case, the actual writing and posting of the blogs—that was the most important part.

Just like the most important part of the car reservation is holding the car, the most important part of making a commitment is fulfilling that commitment. Unfortunately, this is often the hardest part. While not everyone is like the car rental person in Seinfeld who does not care about keeping commitments, many people make them and then find they are harder to keep than they originally imagined.

So, why do competent, well-intentioned people like me sometimes drop the ball when it comes to taking ownership and responsibility for their commitments? What is it that happens between (a) the commitment step (“Sure, I’ll do it”) and (b) the “Do it” step?

Simply put, even competent, well-intentioned people can have trouble holding to commitments, because the average person often makes commitments without fully setting up the necessary conditions to successfully fulfill them.

So, what can you, as a leader, do to ensure commitment is followed by action?

Try this. Next time you delegate an important task or assign a critical project to an employee, work with them and complete these steps to help ensure follow-through on commitments:

[if !supportLists]1. Once the desired outcomes of the assignment are agreed upon, take a few minutes together to identify the positive factors that will help the employee achieve the desired outcome and the negative or risk factors that will detract from or interfere with it. Keep in mind some of these factors are external (e.g., we get distracted or sidetracked by other demands and commitments) and others are internal (e.g., we have our own fears and insecurities about failing).

When I think about my blog writing struggles, I can come up with several positive or motivating factors for writing and completing my blogs. For example, there is pride of accomplishment; knowing when others read the blog, they will likely learn from it; and knowing the blogs are helping my company get its message to current and potential clients. All of these motivate me to write and post my blogs. Helping your employees come up with their own list can remind them of all the positives that can come from completing their assignments.

Coming up with a list of negative or risk factors for delaying blog writing is not difficult for me. For example, there can be a lot of negative self-talk like: do I have anything really that interesting or profound to say, will anyone actually take the time to read this after all the time I have put into it, and am I really any good at writing blogs?

[if !supportLists]2. Take the list of negative or risk factors and determine which ones are within the employee’s “circle of influence” and which ones he can’t control. Set aside those outside the circle. There, obviously, is no reason to waste time and energy on them.

[if !supportLists]3. Discuss and agree on proactive measures to prevent or overcome each of the negative risk factors within the employee’s “circle of influence.”

[if !supportLists]4. Develop an action plant for implementing these measures. Be specific.

These four simple steps, if completed at the beginning of an assignment, can go a long way towards eliminating factors that keep us and our employees from turning commitments into action.

Unfortunately, there are never any guarantees your reserved rental car will be waiting for you at the airport, but you can improve your odds!

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