We usually get in trouble with our to-do’s when we over promise. We put too much on our plate, we make far more commitments than we have the time, resources, or ability to deliver on.
There are many reasons for this. For example, having a full plate may be a part of the company culture, or you may be piling on tasks to create the perception that you’re a go-getter, or you were raised with a strong work ethic. Whatever the reason, I invite you to explore it further with a coach. In this section, however, we will examine how “promise management” (explained later) can be used to restore some sanity into your work life.
Become Impeccable About Your Promises
Requests and promises work in pairs. Every request deserves a promise, and between a request and a promise there can be negotiations. So if you ask a subordinate to prepare a market forecast for the introduction of a new network router, he or she can reasonably say “yes” or “no” or even request to get back to you by a given day and time with their answer. The first two are examples of a “promise,” and the last one is an example of a counter-request to which you could agree or again counter, and so on. Furthermore, before the subordinate makes the promise, he or she can point to a similar forecast that may be adequate, or ask that a peer be available to help, etc. Thus, the negotiation of a promise is a healthy component of the request-promise interaction.
For a request and promise to be effective, it is essential that the request have clear conditions of satisfaction. So, for example, the exact day and time by which the requested item is due, the format in which the requested item must be presented, etc., such that the requestor can declare that they’re satisfied when the request is ultimately delivered. All too often, people promise to do things that they’re unclear as to when they’re due, how requested items should be presented, processes that must be followed for carrying out the request, etc. This leads to misunderstandings, slipped deadlines, delivery of the wrong things, and frustration.
Requests and promises are important components for coordinating the activities of an organization or culture. When they’re used effectively, they build integrity and trust. Linguistically, trust has three components: sincerity, competence, and reliability. All three are important for building trust. The last component, reliability, is relevant to this discussion because it states that when a positive action or behavior is repeated consistently over time, it increases the level of trust. For example, if you’ve shown over time that you are effective at conflict resolution, people will tend to trust you in handling more challenging conflicts in the future. Similarly, if you have a reputation for delivering consistently on your promises (i.e., meeting or exceeding the conditions of satisfaction), you will be trusted as someone who people can count on.
However, in the same way that delivering on your promises builds trust and integrity, slipping on your promises erodes trust and integrity. This is illustrated graphically in Figure 1 . In this figure, the circle at the origin represents the moment in time when we make a promise. Time then marches along, as illustrated by the arrow moving right along the abscissa. In the real world, however, external events happen outside of our control – a key player gets sick, our flight develops engine problems, the server crashes – that put our promise at significant risk. This is the point of “breakdown” in the figure. This is also known as the Golden Threshold of Risk because, at that moment, we know that there’s no way that we can reasonably deliver on the promise.
However, most people – because of pride, or not wanting to look bad, or some other reason – do not contact the individual they made the promise to and instead just trudge along “hoping” that things will get better. As you can see from the figure, though, at the instant that we decide to trudge along, our integrity – and consequently the level of trust that others grant us – begin to erode. Eventually, we reach the deadline when the promise is due and, as things would have it, we don’t have anything to deliver. If we still don’t inform the individual to whom we made the promise about our lack of delivery, then an interesting thing happens: at that instant, there is a discontinuous jump in the erosion of our integrity and trust. At this point, many people start hiding, trying to avoid the person they made the promise to. Eventually, that person will seek them out and inquire about the lack of delivery. This is called the point of complaint in the figure and, as you can see, integrity and trust are significantly eroded.
There are a few simple rules regarding requests and promises that, when followed, build our integrity and trust. I call these the Rules of Promise Management:
1. Make promises that you intend to keep. “Intend” means that:
a) You understand the request, especially the conditions for satisfaction.
b) You believe that you have the skills and resources to fulfill on the promise.
c) You have the will to do it (i.e., you will overcome obstacles to deliver on the promise).
2. Honor your promises and commitments. There are two possibilities here:
a) You deliver on your promise, or
b) You don’t deliver on your promise (because of some external circumstance or because, we’re human, and sometimes we underestimate our ability to deliver).
When this happens, then:
i) Announce the breakdown and apologize as soon as you cross the “golden threshold of risk.”
ii) Offer an explanation, inquire about damages, and offer repair/restitution.
iii) If appropriate, make a new promise to deliver the item by a new date.
iv) Learn from the experience.
3. Underpromise and Overdeliver on some things. This means that when you negotiate for a report to be delivered by Friday at 3 PM, you allow some extra time for contingencies (underpromising). Now, you have the choice to get it done sooner (overdelivering) and hence boost your level of integrity and trust, or get it done by the due date with less stress and angst. Note that we say to follow this approach on “some” things because our personal and professional growth requires some degree of risk taking, although these can be calculated risks. So also allow yourself opportunities to stretch beyond perceived mental limits, for the sake of personal and professional growth.
Figure 1: Eroding Integrity and Trust When We Don’t Keep Our Promises
In my experience, when I follow the Rules for Promise Management, I feel great about myself when I’m able to deliver on a promise on or before its due date. I also feel good when things happen that put my promise at risk, but I’m able to renegotiate my promise without impacting my integrity or the trust that others have granted me. Now, obviously, the individual that’s always re-negotiating on his or her promises may get labeled as flaky, untrustworthy, or inconsistent. On the other hand, I’ve had direct reports who, in the few instances when they’ve informed me at the Golden Threshold of Risk and renegotiated their promises, have increased their trustworthiness by a few notches.
Before concluding this section on requests and promises, there are two more important distinctions to make.
These are: promise vs. guarantee and complaint vs. nagging.
A promise is not a guarantee! A guarantee is “an assurance of a particular outcome or condition.” When you make a guarantee, you’re essentially saying that you will get it done, no matter what. A promise, on the other hand, allows for the possibility of unexpected events to happen and, if necessary, for renegotiation of the promise. Good promise management allows for creating trust and building relationship with the person you’re making a promise to. When you become skillful at managing your promises, your life is less stressful, you become more energized, and productivity increases dramatically. Why does productivity increase? Because when you trust a colleague to have their part of a presentation delivered by a certain day and time per the agreed-upon format, then you can start doing other things, concurrently, to move that project forward because you trust that your part and theirs will integrate correctly. If there were no trust, however, then you would probably wait until they delivered before going ahead with other parts of the project – or installed extra controls to manage their progress. There is a significant cost to organizations that have internal cultures with low levels of trust.
The distinction between a legitimate complaint and nagging or “whining” is very simple. When you:
1. Make a request, and
2. The conditions of satisfaction are clear and agreed-to, and
3. The other party has made a promise
Then, if they don’t deliver on their promise by the agreed-upon day and time, you have legitimate grounds to complain. On the other hand, nagging or whining takes place when someone complains, but there is no request/promise in place.
Notice that “the other party making a promise” in step 3, above, is an important element in coordinating action. Many executives think that they’ve done their part by emailing a request with clear conditions of satisfaction. However, if the recipient doesn’t reply with a promise, then there’s no agreement or commitment in place. The executive has no justifiable grounds for complaint when the promise is not delivered.
What do you do with the naggers or whiners in your life? Here are some suggestions:
1. With professionalism and respect, educate them on making requests and promises, and honoring them.
2. Be a role model for honoring your promises and commitments.
3. Calling someone a “whiner” usually doesn’t produce good results. Instead, respectfully point out that there’s no request/promise in place. Then, ask them: “What request do you want to make?”
Author and management guru Michael Gerber once said: “People are unmanageable. I even have trouble managing myself! However, you can manage a process.” And, I might add: you can manage a process that you’re team has bought into. The Rules of Promise Management can be thought of as a process which, when followed, dramatically increase the level of individual and collective effectiveness in an organization. In terms of gaining control of your work life, here is the big aha: instead of managing a list of to-do’s, manage your promises! When you adopt this perspective, you start becoming very careful about what you promise, because now your integrity and your trustworthiness are on the line. What would your work life be like if you tossed all of your to-do lists and replaced them with carefully worded promises with clear conditions of satisfaction?
Table 1 presents a simple form to use for managing promises. Aren’t you breathing a little easier now? Can you just feel the stress melting away?
Table 1: Example Form For Keeping Track Of Your Promises
Date Promise To Whom Due Date Other Conditions of Satisfaction ?*
4/4/05 Submit draft salary plan John D. 4/15/05 at 5:00 PM EST ? Use last year’s reporting template.
• Ignore new hires.
• Coordinate with Donna regarding engineers transferring from her department into mine.
* Check off promises as they are completed. Draw a circle if the due date is renegotiated and enter the new date in the appropriate column.
Putting It All Together
Setting and enforcing clear boundaries, together with being impeccable about our promises, form a powerful combination for gaining control of our work life. Boundaries are important because they help prevent unreasonable requests from entering our space. They’re introduced in this article because they’re simple to understand, easy to implement, and highly effective. Going beyond boundaries, however, additional work in vision, mission, and values increase the power and effectiveness of our promises.
The Rules of Promise Management keep your work plate tidy and sane because, as you adopt this change in perspective, much of what’s on your to-do list starts to get tossed away or reprioritized. You now begin managing your promises (i.e., your integrity, your trustworthiness, your word) instead of meaningless tasks. Welcome to a new work life!
Eddie Marmol is a LifeCoach.com™ affiliated coach and co-founder of MasterCoaches, Integral Architects, and Corporación Coaches En Español – all executive coaching and leadership development organizations. Eddie is a graduate of Coach University, The Newfield Network, and The Coach Training Alliance. He lives in Melbourne, Florida, with his wife and two daughters.