Why making and keeping promises is important for reliable results

Steven couldn’t believe his ears when he heard people thought he was slippery and unreliable. He was genuinely trying his best to keep his clients happy by promising to deliver within tight deadlines. But he faced a mountain of work and other challenges outside of his control. Despite his best efforts, deadlines would slip. He reasoned that surely his clients understood what he was up against. But they formed the view they couldn’t count on him to keep his promises. Their perceptions had also reached his boss, and it shocked Steven to realise he faced being let go if nothing changed.

He was very disappointed by the feedback and initially viewed it as quite unfair. He never intended to mislead people. But his clients judged him by his actions, not his intentions. Fortunately, Steven didn’t justify his position for too long. He tackled the challenge head-on to turn around their perceptions. He realised it was time to stop telling everyone what they wanted to hear. Instead, he began making promises only after thoroughly considering his team’s workload.

It took a little while for Steven to rebuild his reputation, but his clients soon respected him for delivering on his more measured promises. He introduced a new level of rigour into his team’s practices. Every email and meeting ended with a clear list of action items and deadlines. Slowly but surely, Steven and his team transformed their reputation from unreliable to dependable.

The clients became confident in Steven’s promises because they could fulfil their commitments to their external customers. The CEO was relieved to deliver positive data to the board and investors about their company’s promise to deliver products on time and within budget.

Steven’s story echoes findings from research by Donald Sull and Charles Spinosa in the HBR article Promise-Based Management: The Essence of Execution. They found work stalls in organisations when people fail to make or deliver on promises. They say, ‘Executives can overcome some of their thorniest problems in the short term and foster productive, reliable workforces for the long term by practicing what we call “promise-based management”: cultivating and coordinating commitments in a systematic way.’

🙋 What is your experience of the importance of making and keeping promises? 🙋‍♀️

Best regards, Brian