Promise Management: It Starts with You

December 30, 2015

WHETHER you are the CEO of a Fortune 100 company or the manager of a small department, chances are one of your priorities is to ensure that your team is instilled with a sense of accountability. Are team members keeping their commitments, performing to the best of their abilities and adhering to the mission and values of your organization?

More importantly, are you?

According to an ancient Chinese proverb, a fish rots from its head down. As a leader, if you make and manage your promises poorly or fail to hold others accountable for their promises, the negative effects can quickly spread throughout your organization.

Focusing on promises is essential because they are the foundation of a trusting work environment. Yet all too often, we fail to recognize that the requests and offers and agreements that we make to each other, day in and day out, are just that — promises. And if we don’t see that, then we’re more likely to break those promises, which is why they are worthy of your attention.

Formula of a Promise

Take, for example, a simple request: “Frank, can you get me an inventory report?” “Sure, Steve.” It sounds simple, but what they have created is, in fact, a promise.

Request or Offer + Acceptance = Promise

The problem is, since neither party is likely to view this simple exchange as a promise, there’s a high probability that the promise will be broken. When does Steve need it by? Is Frank clear about precisely what he has agreed to provide? There are too many components to this promise that have not been clarified. And this puts the promise in jeopardy.

Components of a Promise

There are four main components to a promise:

  • The Client and the Provider – is there clarity about who is responsible for what?
  • The Service or Deliverable – is there clarity about what specifically is being requested or offered?
  • The Timing – is there clarity about when the service or deliverable is due?
  • The Conditions of Satisfaction – have the client and the provider clarified the conditions under which the promise can be completed?

All too often, we fail to explore one or more of these components. We assume there is a shared understanding about what is asked for and when it is due. But more often than not, we miscommunicate, and this leads directly to broken promises and a perceived lack of accountability.

A Culture of Promises

As a leader, keeping promises is critical to maintaining a solid team. If you are lax or lazy in making and managing your promises, others will be too. So how can you keep the fish from rotting down to the tail?

  1. Start to recognize the promises around you. Listen to the offers, requests and acceptances around you. The more you pay attention to them, the more you’ll see them all around you.
  2. Use the language of promises. The more you use the word “promise” in your everyday exchanges with others, the more others will recognize their own promises
  3. Be committed to managing your promises. Sometimes, promises need to be revised or revoked, which is perfectly okay as long as you make sure they are not broken, because broken promises lead to broken trust.

As with any new process or procedure, it takes time and commitment to create a cultural shift in an organization. And learning and embracing the language of promises is certain to create a cultural shift. But demanding accountability is really just demanding that others keep their promises. If you expect others to make and manage their promises, it has to start with you.

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Taking accountability for your own actions is a characteristic of a responsible leader. Build on your leadership skills through these AMA resources and seminars.

About The Author

Claudia St. John is founder and president of Affinity HR Group, LLC, a national human resources and management consulting firm specializing in talent selection, workforce management, and human resources compliance. She has given hundreds of presentations and workshops on topics such as employee engagement, common management mistakes, challenges in managing a multigenerational workforce, and building trust and collaboration. Her weekly HR Minute e-bulletin and columns are followed by thousands of business leaders nationwide. Claudia is also the author of the new book, TRANSFORMING TEAMS.

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