A few years ago, a client advised me that he had a policy of not paying for weekend work. Unfortunately, I had already worked on Saturday and Sunday at his last-minute request. To make matters worse, he conveyed this news over the phone when I called to ask “Why is this cheque less than I expect?”
While it’s easy to paint him as a villain in this story, the fact is that there are many business-people who have a loose relationship with their word. To some extent, we all do. When push comes to shove, and things become inconvenient or awkward, we abandon our original intentions. In that moment, we justify our actions to ourselves: they make perfect sense. Unfortunately, they create problems for others.
Most of the time, we cannot see this impact. But we should take note. Every organization depends on a network of employees, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders who are tied to each other by an invisible web of promises.
In great companies, there is a strong relationship between making and keeping promises. Employees see the interaction as one which is sacred, engaging the honour of both parties. Fulfilling promises is critical to the firm’s success, so everyone treats them as important, existing only in black and white terms.
By contrast, weak companies operate like the client I mentioned. Promises are wholly contingent on circumstances; only a poor signal of intent, which often changes. Often, no one is sure when a reliable promise has actually been made.
How can you use these two extremes as an inspiration and a warning to move your company in the right direction?
— Teach Everyone a New Discipline
Recently my firm undertook a study of Jamaicans moving to live and work in Trinidad. One of the surprises our subjects discovered is that promises aren’t viewed as seriously as they expected in the twin-island republic.
This is a practical difference which has everyday implications. For example, when we lead transformation programs, one principle people remember is that of “integrity” which can be taken to mean “doing what you said you would do.” As you may imagine, teaching this principle effectively means varying the way we deliver it from one country to the next, and between companies.
For example, in Jamaica, we want our colleagues to act more like Paul Bogle and George William Gordon, but for ourselves, we still crave the freedom to get away with Bredda Anansi tricks. While this point of view is inherited, it reflects a failure to see the big picture: companies thrive when people make a supreme effort to stick to their word, regardless of the situation. matters. When they stick to their word when no-one is watching, with others who are powerless, on even small issues, it’s no minor matter.
It’s important because anyone who makes a promise puts herself in a battle against life’s circumstances. The random nature of our world resists this person’s commitment. It also militates against organizations who dare articulate a clear vision.
This is why a certain resilience around promises must be taught in companies – it cannot be taken for granted, and it doesn’t come for free.
— Learn techniques to prevent promises from disappearing
But making an effort to keep one’s promises isn’t enough. In this technology-driven time with lots of distractions, it’s also become more difficult to remember all the promises you make. Now, you need far more than your memory – you must use external devices if you hope to avoid falling behind. Furthermore, the more you progress up the corporate ladder, the more promises you are expected to be able to make and keep. Mastering promise management is a requirement.
Fortunately, the tools required to become skillful are to be found on the average smartphone or laptop. (Paper can also be used, but it has its shortcomings.)
Most companies leave employees to develop these skills and learn to use these tools in an ad hoc manner, leading to haphazard results. Then, promises aren’t kept because the skills to do so aren’t taught. This can be corrected via training or coaching.
— Open up and reveal hidden promises
The few companies who master the above steps soon realize they are not enough. Hidden in the culture of each company are unwritten, unspoken expectations which are every bit as powerful as explicit promises.
For example, every organization has invisible expectations around the speed of email replies. Making these standards transparent would save employees from the trial and error process they usually have to navigate.
Companies who get people to forge a strong relationship to their word can thrive when others fail. Sometimes it’s a direct way to produce a breakthrough in performance that meets everyone’s aspirations.