Always Overcommitting? How Coaching Can Help You De-Escalate Commitments

You’re at the bus stop. It says your bus is 10 minutes away. You wait. The bus doesn’t show up. 

What do you do?

Do you:

a) Start walking. After all, your destination is just a 15-minute walk away

b) Keep waiting for the bus

You decided to continue waiting for the bus. You end up reaching work late.

Now imagine this: instead of waiting for the bus, you’re heavily invested in a project at work. You’ve pumped in resources – money, time, team members, but the project is not going anywhere. What do you do? 

Most times, people just continue with such projects, mostly because they’ve already invested so much. When actually, you have the option to stop the project and write the expenses off. 

We all have been there. We probably also know people who regularly step into the same trap: the overcommitment to a certain plan, objective, project or relationship: escalation of commitment (EOC). 

Escalation of Commitment (EOC)

If EOC sounds like an alien concept to you, it really is not. It’s something that’s a lot closer to home than you may think.

Escalating commitment happens when someone continues to dedicate resources, including time and money, to a failing course of action. Escalating commitment exists both inside and outside the corporate world. It extends from the decision to keep waiting for a bus even though one would have reached the destination by foot in the meantime all the way to the involvement of countries in a long lost war.

Any time people stick to their past decisions even though new evidence makes doing so irrational, situations get difficult and people find themselves stuck in the process, they escalate their commitment. In the end, they find themselves having to repeatedly decide whether they should persevere or withdraw from their goal. 

There’s good news, though. Insights from research have shown that coaching individuals can help them to de-escalate commitment. 

What Drives Escalation of Commitment?

What drives this escalation? How can coaching enable people to take a step back and reconsider their actions?

To de-escalate commitment through coaching, I will concentrate on the main influences that affect EOC.

1. Self-justification 

People tend to see only what accords with their beliefs. It is more convenient for us to interpret facts in a way that makes our past ideas appear better than they actually were. If facts challenge this opinion, we find reasons to discredit the source or the quality of the information.

2. Post-escalation regret

Recent studies* on post-escalation regret found that people do not only consider factors that occurred before an escalation decision (retrospective) but also factors that will occur after an escalation decision (prospective). 

If people anticipate future regret about their decision, they are more likely to de-escalate commitment and go for an option where they are less likely to regret their decision in the future.  

As a coach, I can help you direct your view to the future. Envisioning what this near future will look like might help to identify potential regret and redirect the current course of action.

3. Cultural norms

Looking at EOC in relation to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, research* proposes that cultures high in masculinity, high in individualism, low in power distance and low in uncertainty avoidance run higher risks of EOC. 

From this rather general approach, a coach can gain insights into the coachee’s cultural background and consider specific cultural values that might increase EOC. In a lot of EOC situations, people were driven by their need to be consistent in their way of working which meant sticking to a once taken path or decision. 

In the Western world, “consistency is associated with intellectualism, rationality, honesty and stability.”* All of them being positively perceived values as such. So consistency in one’s decisions and the idea of sticking to a path once taken can be a culturally influenced escalation driver. 

4. Option partitioning

De-escalation of commitment is possible if people see a valuable alternative to their goal or objective. People who find themselves stuck in an escalation usually do not see this alternative. Even if there’s an alternative, it does not present itself in either a feasible or surmountable way. 

Studies* show that people who are able to partition the alternative solution are very likely to de-escalate commitment as they break up the alternative into smaller parts that are easier to manage. 

How Coaching Can Help You De-escalate Commitment

To avoid EOC in organisations, certain measures can be put into place: 

  1. Publicly commit to clear goals and limits
  2. Increase monitoring
  3. Regularly evaluate project performance
  4. De-institutionalise the project

These measures can be transferred to individual coaching situations:

  1. In coaching, we usually refer to a publicly committed goal as accountability. 
  2. Individuals can increase monitoring by setting regular milestones for review with their accountability partners.
  3. Regularly scheduled coaching sessions help evaluate the project performance / the development of their personal endeavour with their coach. 
  4. The idea of de-institutionalising a project works on an individual’s project or objective level: by identifying repetitive patterns, unwritten laws or underlying beliefs in coaching sessions, the person can break the behavioural pattern and find a different approach.

In most cases, it’s very difficult for a person to recognise overcommitment as the line between an optimistic can-do attitude and overcommitment is very thin. In a corporate setting, I developed a list of questions that can be used in a coaching situation to support a coachee in de-escalating their commitment in a current project, relationship, endeavour, objective or similar. Reach out to me if you’d like access to my coaching programmes where I go through this list of questions in detail.

* This article was originally published as a research paper. Please contact me for the full list of research.

Are you often at risk of escalating your commitments? Which ways have you found to prevent this from happening? Please share in the comment