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"The promises of yesterday are the taxes of today." William Lyon MacKenzie

As kids, we'd make promises with the utmost solemnity: Cross our hearts and hope to die. We'd spit and shake on it. In the business world, we start talking about commitments. Though the definitions support each other, the connotations can be worlds apart - from "Cross my heart" to "Cross my heart and hope to deliver." Semantics aside: not keeping promises, honoring commitments - not fulfilling on our word - not only sets a bad precedent; it creates a culture that crumbles from the inside.

Back to the Definitions

Promise: a declaration or assurance that one will do a particular thing or that a particular thing will happen.

Commitment: a promise to do or give something.

We often get soft on commitments, giving ourselves an out. They don't carry the same emotional - or intentional - weight as promises. The question becomes how can we put the power, dare I say the solemnity, back into promises? The first step is knowing when not to make them. Two critical questions to ask yourself:

Am I In Control Of The Situation?

When you are dealing with situations in which there are a lot of variables and unknowns, making promises isn't safe. It assumes that you have control, when in fact you're as subject to the slings and arrows as anyone else.

Say, for example, that you promise your 3000 employees hefty year-end bonuses, totalling millions of dollars. And then your second-quarter assets plunge $12 million. This is exactly what happened to manufacturer Lincoln Electric. The company made a promise, but the economy and marketplace had other ideas. The company was in a budgetary quagmire - and an ethical one in terms delivering on a promise to its people.

A safer bet, according to research conducted by Ayelet Gneezy and Nicholas Epley, is to temper your urge to promise. "If you can guarantee an outcome, you'll make your customers (or bosses) happiest when you promise it. But if you're not sure you can do it - or if you think you can do it... you might not want to promise anything and surprise them instead."

(Side note: Lincoln Electric's people did get their bonuses because management decided keeping promises was more important than taking a financial hit by borrowing funds. The lesson, though: be incredibly cautious about what you promise.)

Am I Being Realistic?

An old quote from my days in the financial industry: "There are lots of realistic goals, but there are too many unrealistic timelines." More times than not, it's not the goal - the promised result - that we fall down on. It is the timeframe in which we have to deliver.

For instance, a client needs a report. Yesterday. "I promise it'll get done." You hand it off to that account manager - who has a plateful of other pressing projects. You can influence. You can impact. You can give consequences if he doesn't deliver. But the reality is you shouldn't have promised in the first place. Not because the account manager can't get it done but because he cannot get it done in that unrealistic timeframe.

The Impact of Broken Promises

When businesses break promises to customers, it provides a strong incentive for those folks to take their money elsewhere. But what about when leaders break promises to direct reports or vice versa?

We expect so much - often unrealistically - from people. When they (and we) fail to deliver, a culture of non-performance creeps in. "Sure, we're going to get this report done by Friday." Wink wink. "We can definitely deliver that package overnight." Wink wink. Maybe everyone knows that it won't happen; maybe some people hope that it will. Regardless, we end up being either dishonest, even if not overtly.

There is always another side: the onus falls not only on the leader who puts another helping on an overloaded subordinate's plate. It falls on the person asked to complete the work. If she says, "Yes. I can do it," what's really happening is that she is taking on the responsibility for non-performance rather than saying, "I have a full plate; you're asking me to add to it. What are the priorities? Should I bump this to the top? Finish my most pressing work and then tackle this? Where does this belong?" As a leader, it's your job to help her fulfill the promise.

Recovering from Broken Promises

I messed up. Mea culpa.

When you do not fulfill a promise, you have to go back and ask yourself, "Was I being realistic?" No? Then you need to own it. As a leader, you are fallible. Maybe you asked too much. Maybe your demands exceeded your people's capacity. Be honest and admit the mistake.

Other times, maybe you promised without being in control of the situation. New information, new circumstances came to light. You weren't operating on the correct assumptions. State the obvious, candidly: "This didn't work out. I shouldn't have made this promise." Sometimes it's just like that little kid who says (probably quite solemnly) "Mommy, I promise not to get into the cookie jar." Kid, don't make a promise you know you won't keep!

It's the lack of conversations - both before a commitment is made and when a promise is in danger of being broken - that get us into trouble.

The bottom line: only promise when you know you can deliver. And if you cannot guarantee a result, then start that conversation sooner rather than later.


Larry Hart

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