The 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence would be great speakers today about true Commitment to a plan or decision. The Declaration firmly stated the principles on which this country was founded:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

What made this Commitment so powerful is that the delegations from all 13 colonies were united in their support for this Declaration. There is strength in numbers just like any group or team effort especially when there is a common Commitment to support a decision. Patrick Lencioni, in his book "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" describes how Commitment to plans and decisions is one of 5 fundamentals of what makes a team or group effort effective:

  • Building Trust - when team members are comfortable enough to be vulnerable with each other and admit the truth about themselves
  • Mastering Conflict - when team members engage in a productive, ideological debate about differences
  • Achieving Commitment - when team members provide honest, emotional support to a plan or decision where the "terms" are clear and are without ambiguity
  • Embracing Accountability - when team members are willing to remind one another to live up to the standards of the group or the commitment to deliver on a plan or decision
  • Focusing on Results - when team members keep the collective results of the group in the forefront of their minds

When we think about Commitment to a plan or decision in the business world, it is about how strongly we will support it, how vocal we will be in convincing others and how much of a priority the actions will be in relation to other responsibilities. Without Commitment to a plan or decision, you could have:

  • Ambiguous direction on what is expected
  • Efforts to deliver on the commitment by team members can have opposite or contradictory effects
  • Accountability becomes difficult to enforce
  • Solutions become watered down and have an unhealthy level of compromise
  • Delays in decision-making and in delivering on projects/initiatives
  • Reduction in value realized from a project or initiative

I believe we can learn from the 56 signers about what it means to make a Commitment. When these 56 people from 13 colonies signed the Declaration of Independence, they stated their Commitment in the last sentence, "And for the support of this Declaration with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."

I have not observed too many corporate decisions and plans being made with that type of stated Commitment. I also doubt that the meeting back in July of 1776 occurred like some of the corporate meetings today. Can you imagine Thomas Jefferson meeting with the Continental Congress to review his draft and have the meeting be like some corporate decisions that you and I have probably both observed:

"Here is a copy of my latest draft. We have about 5 minutes on the agenda for you to read the draft, have some discussion and agree to the wording. By the way, I like how the last sentence sounds. That will sound good for the newspaper reporters. We might get some sympathy because the sentence makes it sound like the British will hang us for treason, threaten our families, burn down our houses and smear our reputations. I wouldn't worry too much about that. Okay, our 5 minutes are up. Is there anyone who doesn't buy-in? I'll take that silence as your approval, your commitment to sign and your pledge to implement the Declaration. Thanks for your participation. Now we can debate how we can supply flints for the troops in New York...."

Thank goodness it probably didn't happen that way. From my research, the Continental Congress's debate about the Declaration was quite different than many of our corporate meetings of today. It was a beautiful sunny day outside. However, it was like an oven inside because the windows had to be closed so people could not hear the loud and sometimes bitter arguments. Thomas Jefferson presented his draft and the members of the Continental Congress helped edit the document with 86 modifications over 3 days (and you thought wordsmithing a mission statement for an hour or two was torture).

Each of the 13 colonies voted for the Declaration and 56 delegates of the Continental Congress signed it. Thomas Jefferson believed that all 13 colonies must vote for the Declaration. Otherwise the Colonies would be fighting each other instead of standing up for their rights against the British. Those 56 individuals knew they were risking a lot by signing the Declaration. The British penalty for treason was death by hanging. Ben Franklin knew it because he made this remark, "Indeed we must all hang together, otherwise we most assuredly will hang separately." One of the overweight members called Fat Benjamin Harrison told a much smaller member, "With me it will all be over in a minute, but you, you will be dancing on air an hour after I am gone."

The signers suffered a lot of hardship as a result of their pledge/commitment in the last sentence of the Declaration. But they fulfilled their pledge. No one retracted their pledge. The signers seemed to understand the implications of their pledge. Benjamin Rush described the signing, "Awful silence pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe [sign] what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants." The following is a sample of the impact on the signers' lives after they made their Commitment by voting for the Declaration of Independence:

  • John Hart, a signer from New Jersey, had a reward offered by the British for his capture. His very sick wife wanted him to take their 13 children to a safe place. He placed them with relatives barely avoiding capture several times. He slept in the woods and caves in the frigid December weather while he was hunted. In January, he was able to safely return home but found that his wife had died and his home was in ruins. He died 2 years later.
  • Abraham Clark, another signer from New Jersey, had all his property destroyed. Also, two of his sons were captured and held on a British prison ship. It is said they were treated brutally because of their father. The British offered to release his sons if Clark abandoned the American cause. As difficult as it must have been personally, he refused to betray his country and he honored his Commitment.
  • Francis Lewis, a signer from New York had his Long Island home destroyed and his wife taken prisoner. She was held in a cold, filthy prison for revenge against her husband signing the Declaration. She died 2 years later.

So what can we learn about Commitment from these 56 Signers:

  • Debate, openness and participation are the vehicles for achieving and sustaining Commitment. When you participate in a debate, make your thoughts known and challenge the opinions of others. Then the group can establish a common basis for Commitment to a plan or decision -- even if there is not complete agreement.
  • Wordsmithing enables Commitment. Since we all use different words to express our thoughts, the wordsmithing debate helps us collectively determine whether we are on the same page or not. When a team member discusses what he/she means by a phrase, we begin to understand the person's beliefs and principles on the issue. Even if we don't like the words, we can agree on the principle. So don't try to wordsmith a mission statement in 15 minutes. You are just robbing the team of the chance of achieving true Commitment.
  • Most decisions and plans in business don't require the level of Commitment needed to establish a country which eventually became the leader of the free world. But no matter the decision or plan, there will always be risks and consequences to achieving a team Commitment. Discussing the personal/professional risks and consequences as well as the potential value from a decision/plan helps each team member relate the pluses/minuses to their core beliefs and principles. When a team member makes a Commitment based on their core beliefs and principles, then the individual is more likely to provide emotional support in unambiguous terms.

Decisions and plans still have to be executed and implemented. The Commitment level of the team members will often make a difference as to whether the desired result is achieved or not. When you start seeing the following behaviors, the team is probably getting the Commitment it needs to deliver on its plans and goals:

  • The team makes decisions as quickly as they can even if they don't have all the information
  • The team is confident that all team members will do what is required to implement the decision
  • Team members verbally support decisions outside the meetings -- even if the decision agreed upon was not their preference
  • When an implementation leader (for the decision) reports on progress, team members don't revisit the decision or are not overly critical of the plan for implementation. Instead, they volunteer their help and suggestions to ensure the effort is successful.

So when it comes to your Commitment to a business decision or plan, I hope you don't have to sleep in the woods, have your house burned down or have your spouse terrorized. But making a decision without the team's Commitment to support and deliver what is required has a lot of negative implications for you, your team and your organization. So challenge your team to debate the issue until all team members can put their Commitment in writing and sign the document. Take Ben Franklin's advice when it comes to making a Commitment -- Hang Together.

© Michael R. Goodfriend, Goodfriend & Associates, Inc., 2007

Sign Up for new Insights

From Our Readers

“I loved your article about Team Offsites. I have been to many offsite meetings that failed because one or more of the items you mentioned was missing."

“I thought the insights you provided were thought provoking and on target. You have a gift at taking these "common life" situations and drawing strong parallels with the business world. Thank you!”

"Mike, thanks for sharing, some good learnings and enjoyed the correlation. I will have to use this on my British colleagues."

"Awesome news letter! It made me smile and refresh some great memories I had as a kid.   Greatest lessons in life I ever learned were on a baseball diamond as a kid. Thanks." 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  A clever way to explain and consider the Birkman Method. I appreciate you sending this to me!

"Well done.  Your best Goodfriend Insights yet."