“Don’t lie and don’t cheat, and don’t make promises you can’t keep.”   It’s a simple, but powerful, little saying that even a child can understand.  And yet, it seems that keeping promises has become awfully difficult.

I believe there’s an epidemic going on these days of people not honoring their commitments.  It was so subtle in coming that most people didn’t notice it.  They still might not realize it, but it’s real.

I see it in the business world all the time.  Salespeople say they are going to follow up on something, and then they don’t.  Or they commit to a quota at the beginning of the year and six months later they are offering five reasons why they can’t make that quota.  Design teams commit to a schedule for a project and then almost immediately get behind schedule.  A manager says he will consider getting an employee a bonus and then never follows through.  A production team commits to cost reductions and nothing happens.  An executive commits to a certain profit level, and then she lets her leadership team convince her they can’t possibly make it.

Out of the office, I see the same kinds of things happening.  Politicians don’t keep campaign promises.  Non-profits fall short of their fundraising or capital campaign goals.  People don’t honor their pledges at church.  Commercials tell us we don’t have to pay off all our credit card debt or even what we might owe the IRS.  Divorce rates are up. Kids say they want to make all A’s, but then they settle for a B or even a C.   The list goes on and on.

Legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant said, “The first time you quit, it’s hard. The second time, it gets easier. The third time, you don’t even have to think about it.”   I believe this also applies to keeping commitments.  The fewer you keep, the easier it becomes to routinely fall short of doing what you say you’ll do. 

I heard Robert Jolly, the CEO of Retail Strategies, speak recently about his company’s values. Commitment is vitally important. He said quite frankly:  “If I say I will—I will.”   That stayed with me. There’s no simpler or more resolute way of saying you’ll keep your commitments.


You Can Be a Keeper of Promises

Robert is right, and his advice applies to any situation—in or out of the office. If I say I will—I will.  There are several ways to make sure you will. Here are a few:

  • Be stingy when making promises.  Making fewer promises usually means you’ll keep more of them.
  • Be mindful of what you’re promising and make sure you can do something before you commit to it.  You don’t always have to say “yes” when someone asks you do to something.  Consider saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t commit to that right now. Let’s talk about this another time.” (That’s much better than saying “yes” and then doing nothing.)
  • Don’t promise more than you can do.  It’s just that simple.
  • Write down your commitments.  Make a list on your phone. Send yourself an email. Documenting a promise is the first step toward keeping it.
  • Know exactly what you’re promising by asking, “Do what by when?” Understand the request or goal, and then ask, “When do you need an answer?”   Be specific about what you will do next.  Do everything you can to avoid any miscommunication and to gain clarity and understand the urgency or importance of the situation.
  • Hold yourself accountable.  Keep score by keeping a list of promises filled and not fulfilled.  If you realize you can’t keep a promise, own up to that.  Go back to the person to whom you’ve promised something, and let them know you need more time or that you can’t do it.

Remember this: “It is much better to promise nothing and try and give everything, than to promise everything and give nothing at all.”