Why We Overcommit, 2040’s Ideas and Innovations, Issue 122

Kevin Novak
7 min readAug 17, 2023

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Issue 122, August 17, 2023

Nike may disagree, but just say no!

Let’s take a pause to consider how we make decisions and why we often over-commit. We wrote an entire book, The Truth About Transformation, about the misconceptions surrounding change and transformation. Many think the greatest obstacle to a significant change is the lack of resources or technological finesse. Those are contributing factors for sure, but the single barrier to change is: Us.

Individuals. Our leadership, management, and workforce. The reasons we do what we do or don’t, why we make one decision or another, why we react, peacock, roadblock, turn away, shut down and yes, overcommit, all result from unconscious and conscious behaviors. To sum it up: We are the most overlooked part of the change equation.

But First, Let’s Reflect for a Moment

Why does it seem so damned hard to recognize what’s right in front of us, or more to the point, staring back at us in the mirror?

We admit that we at 2040 are not organizational psychologists or behavioral experts, but we know from experience with our practice that recognition of our behaviors — why we do what we do, why we think the way we do and why and how we respond to situations — is nearly always an uncomfortable experience. Even the narcissists among us don’t openly examine motivations, patterns, and reasons for our behaviors. It’s safe to say that we justify our actions convinced we are right (or at least mostly right) and everyone else is wrong.

Over the past years, we have revealed the often ignored and overlooked behaviors that frame our professional and daily lives. Before we dive into how we are influenced (by ourselves) and the reasons we overcommit, here is a sampling of our past articles for anyone seeking to better understand our motivations as well as those around them (explore our archives to find even more).

Criticism Give and Take

A strategy that we believe is, and always will be important, is the focus of our Leading with Courage newsletter where we discussed the necessity and the benefits of accepting criticism, embracing how others see a situation, and being open, comfortable and okay with sharing feedback with others when needed. We admit it, it’s not easy. We all have deeply held biases that filter how criticism is given and received. It takes mindfulness infused with the recognition of who we are and what makes us tick to ensure criticism is given with the best of intentions and received positively. Open constructive dialogue is paramount to moving forward as humans and an organization.

So, saying no isn’t just a negative, knee-jerk reaction. We are going to take the next 10 minutes of your reading time to dive into the top notes of why and how we make decisions and how that can make or break an individual’s or organization’s attempt to change, transform and ultimately impact performance.

Mindfulness

How we think and make decisions permeates every action of every day. It’s a good exercise to analyze how you lead, interact, and respond and then distill it down to the most important factor that controls us in any situation or environment. Again, we often do not consciously recognize the “why,” or take that momentary pause to determine, “Hmm. why did I just say that? Hmm, why did I just do that?” Perhaps there are times we admit “Wow, did I screw that up!” But rarely do we reflect to understand why and leverage that knowledge to do things differently.

Here are a few motivations that drive us:

  • Control: of a situation to a desired/intended outcome
  • Purpose: ensuring everyone is staying on task
  • Anxiety: in response to or the avoidance of
  • Innovation: trying to move to different and new
  • Humility: the need to be humble or portray serenity
  • Entitlement: people should listen to my every word
  • Inspiration: energize the masses with purpose
  • Teacher: sharing intelligence and solutions
  • Empathy: recognizing everyone has feelings
  • Rebel: not giving a damn what anyone thinks
  • Hero: mission-driven and in service to others

Do you recognize yourself? Members of your team? And to take it another step, do you work to leave a legacy, create connection, provide discipline, or explore a higher purpose? All of these conscious and subconscious motivations and values come into play in how you contribute to your own and your organization’s success.

The Truth Is Out There

There’s another angle to motivation, perhaps more insidious. In our current public discourse truth has come under crossfire and we believe everyone is being constantly manipulated by fake news, deepfakes, and filter bubbles. It’s hard to know what to believe, and whether a human being or generative AI is commenting on just about anything.

We seek to blame others or brands for how we act or feel immersed in social and digital channels. Society (the public and government) seems to blame Google, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and any other social channel you want to name for our woes and friction. However, recent research seems to be challenging our perceived causes and our excuses. Despite our social channels barraging us with negative and questionable information, they rarely change our core values. But social does influence us. Think the same way about an organization’s core values; they can be eroded by incremental undercutting, personal agendas, and false narratives. The writing on the wall is that our biases (often unconscious) can get us into a lot of trouble. Our filters confirm our values and ingrain them more deeply. We can’t simply blame social platforms and their algorithms for our faults. We are both the problem and the solution.

Now shift that idea to an organizational perspective; trust can be at risk based on individual motivations. It may be hard to determine fact versus fiction and we may look around the conference table wondering why everyone is reacting the way they are or questioning where they got the information that they are sharing.

You can call it being overly optimistic (a la sales) or downright subversive in terms of supporting a common goal. Stretching the truth may be to protect others or ourselves. The omission of details falls into this behavior category, which on the surface may not make a big difference, but it erodes trust. If you share a group message platform, playing it fast and loose with the facts is a lot more difficult, since these systems are built on transparency. Accountability is essential to build trust and keep a team cohesive.

Overpromising

Clichéd as it may be, the best operational mantra is to underpromise and over-deliver. But honestly, don’t we typically overpromise? Especially with sales projections. It is in the DNA of most business development leaders to be optimistic oftentimes at the expense of being realistic. Sometimes overpromising is due to too much hope, or we feel we need to go along with the crowd. But what happens is that despite committing to one thing or another at work or at home, we may wind up frustrated, obligated or even angry when we underdeliver.

So, why do we overcommit? As reported in The New York Times, Hal Hershfield, a professor of behavioral decision-making and psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Your Future Self says it’s easier to commit to something that you’re ambivalent about as long as the event takes place in the future.

“In his research, Dr. Hershfield has found that we often agree to things that we don’t want to do because we tend to hold a more aspirational version of our ‘future selves’ — we like to think we have more time, interests and generosity than we actually do. Then the event approaches, the truth is revealed (we’re still the same person) and we’re stuck with a twinge of regret.”

One management tool for overpromising is to consider if the commitment aligns with higher goals. Or if it might lead to something more important. Or sticking with the promise is actually low stakes with a higher payoff in the future.

Just Say No

Or, you could just say no. We need to be vigilant in committing our energy and our time professionally and personally. It is an important learning and an important skill. As we wrote last week in our commentary on anti-perfectionism, we are practicing a new balance and getting smarter about those things that make our lives stressful. Even in an organization, overcommitting can lead to poor results.

At 2040 we help clients recognize what is of value and what is less so. It’s not being lazy or irresponsible to say no. It is a survival tool and common sense to practice critical thinking and learn to say no at the right time.

Read and explore this issue and all past issues>

Get “The Truth about Transformation”

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Order your copy today and let us know what you think!

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Kevin Novak

4X webby winner, CEO and Chief Strategy Officer @2040 Digital (www.2040digital.com), IADAS Member, Speaker, Author, Science Nut