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Are you Intellectually committed to your role?

Updated: Feb 18, 2022

From a janitor to the president or chief executive officer (CEO), the factory worker to the prime minister, fresh graduate to workers with decades of experience, intellectually committing to a role is a choice made by the individual, regardless of the role

What does intellectual commitment look like?

Being intellectually committed makes you purposeful and intentional. You tend to focus on solving problems, and doing this leads to behaviors like result orientation, commitment, solution mentality, ownership and accountability, and so on.

When you're intellectually committed, you process the context and outcomes of your decisions and actions differently; you think about them, reflect on them, and are deliberate about how you approach them.

Intellectual commitment relies on and develops, your knowledge and skill in the domain, and your capacity for intellectual engagement, however, both of these are developmental in nature.

The fundamental indicator that you're intellectually committed is that you've engaged in your role as a problem solver, not simply as a doer.

Why intellectual commitment?

At a fundamental level, the underlying purpose of every role is to solve the problems associated with that role, and problem-solving requires intellectual commitment.

Without intellectual commitment, the role is no longer really about solving problems and more about performing tasks and activities. Tasks can be performed in a rote manner by simply copying how others before you performed the tasks, or how you performed the tasks in the past, or copying supposed "best practices" from the industry as shared by people familiar with what others are doing.

Without intellectual commitment, there will be limited or no carefully considered adaptation of actions to the current context. There will also be limited or no demonstration of an understanding of the variables or principles that might impact success here and now. In addition, activities will likely be driven by a rudimentary definition of success outside the parameters related to the real value that can be delivered.

How critical is intellectual commitment to roles?

While all roles require intellectual commitment, without it, some roles are not only extremely ineffective but tend to create problems for the systems within which they exist and operate.

Knowledge work roles and Knowledge-workers: the underlying premise of knowledge work is the use of domain expertise to solve problems in the same or other domains. While we often assume people in roles doing knowledge-work are knowledge-workers, if these people are not intellectually committed are they then really knowledge workers? Wouldn't their approach to the work more closely resemble manual workers (engaged in the work in a way that utilizes minimal domain expertise)? I could refine the use of the term "knowledge-worker" to refer to the way the person doing the work is doing it rather than the work itself. In this way, people who wouldn't traditionally be considered knowledge workers because of the work they are doing could now be considered knowledge workers because of how they are doing the work. The problem comes when the role requires knowledge work, but the person in the role takes a manual work approach to the work.

Non-individual contributor roles - people managers and leaders: as a role moves further away from the actual concrete/physical tasks and activities of the work being done to deliver results and value, the focus of the role shifts from the physical tasks and the direct experience of how these tasks are working or not working, to a conceptual representation of the tasks; a predictive perspective that relies on having a view on the principles behind why the actions might work or not work, based on consciously held assumptions about why they worked or didn't work in the past. This applies to both the technical domain and the added domain of human behavior and systems related to building, managing, and leading a team to produce solutions.

The further away from the concrete tasks the role operates, like from first-line managers or supervisors, managers of managers, and organizational leaders, the value the role desires to deliver will increasingly depend on a greater number of activities which then increases the number of the variables to be considered when thinking about why doing this or that did or did not deliver the value, or will or will not deliver the value. Eventually, these roles will be dealing mostly with adaptive challenges and wicked problems.

Intellectual commitment is not an option in these roles if the true value of the role is to be delivered.

Can these roles be performed without intellectual commitment/engagement? And if yes, what does that mean?

The quick answer is yes the view is simply doing the role. As I stated at the start of this piece, regardless of the role, intellectual commitment is a choice made by the incumbent.

If the incumbent in these types of roles is not intellectually committed, then the true value of the role will not be realized.

Things will get done for sure, so it's just a matter of what is done and the missed opportunities to deliver value. Also, with non-individual contributor roles, there is the added possibility that having at least one intellectually committed worker means the non-individual contributor in the role can rely on the decisions and actions of that "knowledge worker".

It is difficult to assess the impact of lack of intellectual commitment because you'll have to assess something that is missing, measuring what could have been. However, it is easy to recognize the problems it creates - lack of accountability and ownership, reduced engagement, productivity impact, and so on.

Having intellectually committed people in similar roles in the same organization provides the opportunity to study them and their teams to understand the impact on the rest of the system and assess the potential value to be gained if more of the people in those roles increased their intellectual commitment.

What is your advice on how how to increase intellectual commitment in roles in Organisations?

Three areas immediately come to mind

  1. Change how roles (jobs) are presented: I have this view that job titles and job descriptions might be a major reason why people don't intellectually commit. These instruments of communicating jobs focus on activities and emphasize differences that don't actually exist between the same roles across organizations or even industries. Also, these instruments often in no way represent the reality of the experiences in the roles. Adding to the ongoing discussions on how to improve this, I will say we should focus on a few things - what types of solutions the role needs to be able to offer and the types of problems the role will be helping to solve with those solutions. These two, solutions and problems, are embedded within the domains of expertise. At the moment we don't emphasize domain expertise (knowledge work), instead, we tend to emphasize job activities (manual work) which only ends up de-emphasizing the need for intellectual commitment. With regard to activities, we could present them differently by focusing on where the person needs to contribute in the value chain of producing the solutions to the problems. Finally, we should indicate competency - which represents the specific aspects of solution efficacy for which the role needs to be accountable and the types of output the person will be responsible for delivering as an individual (these individual responsibilities for specific deliverables apply to non-individual contributors as well)

  2. Shift training of non-individual contributors from “soft skills” to hardcore management skills (drawing on management domain expertise): when managers and leaders build and manage teams, choosing to be intellectually committed to their roles will help them appreciate and cultivate intellectual commitment in the people they manage and lead. A key requirement of management and leadership is being able to frame the problem they are solving and guide the path to a solution. As non-individual contributors, they are solving both the technical/professional domain (what solutions are we developing for what problems and how) as well as the domain of people management (what people & social solutions am I developing for what people & social problems, and how).

  3. Recognize and reward results achieved not activity completed… but not just results achieved but the insights generated from the experience of achieving those results; insights that inform future decisions, increasing the likelihood of repeatability and predictability of achieving results in the future: for most people, performance assessment focuses on tasks or activities completed not on results achieved or impact or value delivered. This needs to shift first. However, that shift alone is not enough. Beyond that shift, there needs to be a focus on what the experience of delivering that value or impact taught us. What we learned about the variables and principles in that domain that made those results possible so we can add that knowledge to the body of knowledge that informs our decisions and actions going forward. Embedding this into how goal achievement is viewed and discussed, and how performance is assessed, will ensure intellectual commitment is central to the experience of the roles in the organization.

Any closing thoughts?

While one can also emotionally or socially commit to a role, and these are very common types of commitment, in contrast, I find that intellectual commitment seems to be very rare.

Being emotionally committed means you care about your role and might even be passionate about it, but the passion could be for any aspect of the role not related to solving problems. Note that it is possible that your emotional commitment could also be to the solutions to problems, in this case, you will most likely also be intellectually committed.

You could also be socially committed which means you care about what you being in the role means to other people. Again, this could be about any aspect of the role not related to the types of problems you can solve in the role, but the social commitment could also be about solving those problems for people which will again mean you're most likely also intellectually committed.

I am currently doing a lot of work and exploration around aspects of the experience of employment that impact this idea of intellectual commitment and would love to work with organisations that are keen to explore the same.


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