Keeping Your Word at Work
Building Trust by Keeping Promises
What does it mean to "keep your word"? Essentially, it's doing what you say you'll do.
So, when you tell your colleagues that you'll chair next week's meeting, you turn up on time and do a good job. Or, when you inform your manager that you'll have completed that report by tomorrow morning, you deliver it.
Over time, honoring your promises (no matter how small) can earn you an enviable reputation for dependability, reliability and trustworthiness. This, in turn, can help you to develop and deepen your working relationships.
However, sometimes it's very hard to do what you say you will, and in this article we'll explore why that is. We'll also assess the potential impact of breaking a promise, and suggest five ways to avoid ever doing so again.
Why Do We Struggle to Keep Our Word?
We make promises for lots of reasons, and our intentions are usually good. For example, we want to help other people, to make them happy, or to make something happen. But, sadly, our actions don't always measure up to the promises that we make.
Some of the reasons we don't keep our word include:
- We don't realize that we've made or implied a promise.
- We forget what we've said.
- We get sidetracked by other events.
- We lose enthusiasm when we realize that keeping our word is harder than we expected.
- We haven't allowed enough time, or we have a scheduling conflict.
- We lack the power to do what we've said we'd do.
The Impact of Broken Promises
You may get away with letting someone down once or twice. But the consequences can be deep and enduring if you go back on your promises too often, whether or not it's intentional.
Your co-workers will lose trust in you and likely hesitate to ask you for help again, and you might find yourself excluded from discussions. Your manager may start allocating projects to more reliable people, and you could lose certain privileges.
If you're a manager, your people may grow dissatisfied with your leadership, or lose respect for you. They'll put more effort into developing a backup plan than getting the job done, in case you don't deliver. As a result, your team's motivation and performance will drop off.
Worse still, research shows that a manager's repeated broken promises can create a negative "snowball effect" within the team. That is, people may follow their manager's bad example, consciously or unconsciously, and slip into harmful behaviors themselves toward co-workers and clients. 
The personal consequences of breaking your word can be very serious. Your professional standing will decline as more people lose their trust in you. You may come up with all manner of excuses for your behavior, which can further damage your reputation. And, when you feel shame or guilt, you could start to suffer from stress or a crisis of confidence.
Are You a Promise Breaker?
Chances are, you do occasionally break a promise – you're human, after all! But it's worth thinking about how dependable you are as a colleague, as a friend, and as a manager.
So, ask yourself some serious questions, such as: "Do I sometimes agree to things, even though I know that I can't do them, or that I don't want to?" Or, "Have people stopped asking me for help or support?"
You might let yourself down, too. For example, how often do you cancel personal plans at the last minute? And have you ever sabotaged your own important goals?
If you recognize some of these behaviors, you're now ready to do something about it!
5 Tips for Keeping Promises
Most of us make promises for good reasons. Maybe we want to support our co-workers' projects, or help a team member to achieve that well-deserved pay raise. Or perhaps we want to be a reliable partner and get home on time. But we sometimes need strategies that will help us to stick to what we say.
Here are some pointers to follow:
1. Be Organized
We often make promises impulsively. But, it's wiser to stop and think before you agree to act. Check your diary for scheduling clashes. Be sure that you have the resources to complete the task. And clarify exactly what you're committing to.
Don't say "yes" if you've any doubt that you'll be able to keep a promise. Instead, politely decline the request, or negotiate a compromise.
If you typically break promises because you struggle to find the time to fulfill them, our resources on time management can help you to take control.
2. Be Motivated
It's much easier to keep a promise when you genuinely want to do so. You're enthusiastic and you'll not let anything get in your way.
But think carefully about your motives for agreeing to a request. Do you really want to help out, or are you saying "yes" just because it would please people? Ask questions to understand what the impact of your actions might be – is there a greater purpose that you can focus on, that will motivate you to deliver?
3. Don't Overpromise
There will always be occasions when you know that you can't deliver, so just be honest about it.
It can be painful to turn down requests for help, or to admit that you don't have the capacity or the ability to do something. But, it's far better to do so than to risk giving people false hope, or to be untruthful. You can combine being direct, respectful and empathic by engaging in a Savvy Conversation®.
If you often find yourself saying "yes" when you want to say "no," you'll likely benefit from reading our article, "Yes" to the Person, "No" to the Task.
4. Be Principled
People sometimes excuse their promise-breaking by claiming something like, "Well, that's business!" Or, "It's OK, Miles won't mind me missing his speech. He knows I'm always busy!"
Avoid falling back on "get-out clauses" like these. They put your honesty, dependability and reputation on the line. Instead, be guided by your values and principles, and strive for high standards of behavior.
Our article, How to Be Ethical at Work, offers additional tips on sticking to your principles in difficult situations.
5. Be Sincere
Sometimes, events outside our control block all of our efforts to honor our word, however hard we try. Illness, family emergencies, and equipment malfunctions are forgivable. Even so, it's important to recognize that you have let someone down, so acknowledge this and apologize if appropriate. People will appreciate it and be understanding, and you'll preserve your reputation.
When you're on the receiving end of a broken promise, you'll need to decide how you will respond. For example, whether to be sympathetic and let it go, have a gentle word, or call someone out and schedule an official meeting. This will be a personal decision but, if it occurs often, or if it has a serious effect on you, your work or your wellbeing, it may be wise to speak up. To do this, you can follow the same steps that you'd use to give feedback.
Keeping your word at work is important for establishing trust and maintaining your good reputation.
But it's not always easy, so it can be useful to understand why you break promises, and to work on reliably keeping the ones that you make.
If you want to improve your promise-keeping, use these five pointers:
- Be organized.
- Be motivated.
- Don't overpromise.
- Be principled.
- Be sincere.
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