Commitments, Disrupted: Understanding and Addressing Commitment Drift in For-Profit Enterprises

76 Pages Posted: 21 May 2015

Date Written: May 21, 2015


Businesses frequently make promises and commitments to employees, customers, investors and civil society as a means to secure resources or obtain cooperation. Many of these commitments are made on behalf of the business as an organization, as if it were a moral actor. Yet evidence suggests that businesses do not have a strong track record for keeping commitments and broken commitments contribute to stakeholder distrust. Though historical explanations emphasize the role of “bad apples” or old-fashioned personal greed and static individual traits above all, recent work on institutional and organizational corruption suggests that “bad barrels” or individual-, interpersonal-, and group-level factors may also be at play. Yet even these views are relatively narrow, which has led to “a relative neglect of the role of processes and systems” in creating corruption. Separate bodies of research suggest that unclear or ambiguous commitments or failures in “connecting the dots” across organizations can also contribute to “commitment drift.” We therefore argue for the inclusion of “weak commitments” and "disconnected dots" as two additional sources of institutional and organizational corruption. Given these four possible causes, we argue that keeping organizational commitments may be harder than it first appears, and that developing commitment-keeping competence could help companies advance their own interests as well as build trust with other stakeholders.

In this paper, we report on a project to develop and pilot two tools for diagnosing “commitment drift” and building commitment-keeping competence: a Commitment Scorecard and a Commitment-Keeping Employee Survey. We draw on an 18-month multi-methods study with a U.S.-based global Fortune 500 company whose CEO had committed to keeping promises as an explicit business strategy, where we piloted the Survey and Scorecard. We begin by outlining a working causal model of commitment drift. We then analyze the Employee Survey and Commitment Scorecard pilot results, and present implications for future study.

Keywords: Institutional corruption, commitments, promises, commitment drift, stakeholder distrust, trust, coordination, processes, systems, institutional integrity, organizational integrity, corporate integrity, corporate social responsibility, complex adaptive systems, psychological contracts, cynicism, shor

Suggested Citation

Doty, Elizabeth and Kouchaki, Maryam, Commitments, Disrupted: Understanding and Addressing Commitment Drift in For-Profit Enterprises (May 21, 2015). Edmond J. Safra Working Papers, No. 64, Available at SSRN: or

Elizabeth Doty (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics ( email )

124 Mount Auburn Street
Suite 520N
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Maryam Kouchaki

Northwestern Kellogg School of Management ( email )

2001 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208
United States

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