Why some of your old work commitments never seem to go away

Posted on under Today's research

Years after I ceased to be a TV producer/director for the BBC I would replay old programs in my mind and devise ways to make them better, more entertaining, more engaging. I won three major awards in my relatively brief time on the job, but perhaps in my mind there’s never a perfect show.

New research in the journal Academy of Management Discoveries suggests I am not alone.

What the researchers say: In a study of 420 employees representing a wide variety of occupations and work settings at three organizations, researchers found that commitments that workers no longer had were still lingering in their minds—like the TV shows in mine.

“It was clear to us that past commitments were still affecting employees,” said the lead author of the study.

While these effects could be positive or negative, the study revealed that many employees harbor negative feelings about long-gone obligations that their supervisors may not realize.

“We need to find out what managers can do to mitigate the negative effects of these prior commitments that may be holding people back in their jobs,” the researchers said.

While there has been a lot of research on commitment in the workplace, the researchers believe that this is the first study to examine the impact of past commitments.

The researchers called these “quondam commitments.” Quondam means “that which once was.” Workplace commitments examined in the study included those to organizations, supervisors, workplace teams, projects, goals or occupations, among others.

The research involved surveys of employees at a health care facility, a financial institution and a large, unionized manufacturing plant. The researchers asked employees just two questions: The first asked participants to describe in a few words a specific thing that they had been committed to at work but were not anymore. The second asked them to say why they no longer had that commitment.

After reading the responses, the researchers sorted them into 11 broad reasons for why commitments ended. The most common was changes in work circumstances, which included about 30 percent of all responses. This could involve changed jobs or positions or shifted responsibilities.

“The fact that changes in work circumstances was the No. 1 reason was surprising to me,” the lead author said. “We all talk about the rapidly changing workplace, but I still didn’t expect it to be the most cited reason for commitments ending.”

The second most common reason, cited 16 percent of the time, was over-commitment. This included conflicting responsibilities or there simply not being enough time or capacity to fulfill all of one’s obligations.

“Over-commitment at work hasn’t been given the attention it deserves. Our findings suggest we need to look at this a lot more closely,” he said.

“There is evidence that having commitments facilitates well-being because it gives you a sense of purpose. But commitments become a problem when employees feel they have too many to keep up.”

Indeed, “negative effects on well-being” was another category of identified reasons for no longer being committed.

Several of the other reasons cited for quondam commitments also had troubling implications for companies, including “negative perceptions of other personnel,” “negative perception of leadership/management,” and a “significant negative work event.”

A strong negative quondam commitment could make employees reluctant to fully commit to new projects, supervisors or goals in their jobs, according to the study.

The closest thing to this that had previously been studied is romantic relationships. With which here are strong parallels.

“People talk about how they have been burned in the past and don’t want to make the same mistake again. Something similar could happen to employees whose past work commitments didn’t end when, or the way, they wanted,” said the researchers.

The researchers claim that the study points out the need to take quondam commitments seriously in the workplace.

“We need to figure out when a quondam commitment is going to be positive or negative for both employee and/or the organization, and when its effects are going to linger or dissipate quickly,” they said.

“Companies today often need to pivot quickly and they need employees to change commitments just as fast. How managers deal with these changes for their employees, and the effects of prior commitments, is crucial,” they concluded

So what? An old guru of mine once said that we only really hate people that we really want to love us. Many studies have shown that romantic or other relational disappointments have a lasting effect on our attitudes and our behaviors. The emotions that love—requited or unrequited—unleash in the reward, stress and memory systems are fairly well known. What this research shows is that those evoked by work—particularly work that you are committed to—operate in much the same way.

The other factor here is humans’ natural distaste for change of any kind—particularly if it leads to a disruption of relationships—with fellow workers, or a particular supervisor or manager, who is seen as part of an individual’s support network (as all good managers strive to be). Our responsibilities may have changed, but, like an old love (or hate) the emotion remains to be ruminated about.

Work change is often seen as a loss (like the ending of a romantic relationship) and mourned. Part of this mourning would be a frequent evocation of the loved one or the loved work. The same rumination would operate in the case of the loss of an unpleasant relationship or work—though the obsessive memories would be different, of course.

What now? If you’re going to change someone’s work, make sure it’s a voluntary change and that the new work is challenging and engaging.

By Dr Bob Murray