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Executive Excellence Series (2 of 50): When You Make a Promise Knowing You Can't Fulfill It

October 21, 2017

The academic domain of this subject is the school for ethics. You make promises every day -- promises to your workforce, promises to your clients and customers, promises to your supply chain vendors, promises to your stakeholders. They receive your promises with good faith they will be fulfilled, and anticipate that event. Two good characteristics bind your relationships: trust and integrity.

Commitment drift. That's a gentle term Elizabeth Doty of Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics used to describe the opposite of integrity in promise-making. If you don't fulfill your promises to staff, clients, vendors, and stakeholders, they aren't likely to use as nice a term, and you will lose their trust and your integrity.

In the Lean Six Sigma world of business commitments, there are seven fundamental strategies that will keep you from making empty promises that could quickly cost you your customer and client loyalty, the support of your stakeholders, a severed critical link in your supply chain, millions from a lawsuit, even business failure.

1st -- Don't use promises as a strategy frequently. Only make a promise when the payoff benefits both parties in a significant way. In all other situations, set a mutual goal, route to attain it and incentivize reaching it.

2nd -- Record the promises you make and create milestones for each. Make sure to review the promises and their status regularly and commit to action that achieves the milestones.

3rd -- Require the same monitoring of commitments from your staff. If they aren't following through on their promises, they can put the company in jeopardy.

4th -- Make sure any individuals or groups required to participate in fulfilling commitments know what their role is and are committed to fulfilling it. It's essential that everyone involved know that they are and know what actions they need to take.

5th -- Make fulfillment a defined process, not a triumphant gesture. If fulfilling a promise requires some type of heroics, team members are likely to get worn out trying to fulfill promises.

6th -- When you or any members of your team take on a new project or role, make sure that you know about any promises you inherit from your predecessor. They may have made the promise, but you need to make sure it is honored.

7th -- Make sure everybody is on the same page. It's damaging to the company if individuals or departments are making contradictory statements relating to the promise(s) made.

Follow these seven essential rules for keeping your promises and your company will have a reputation for keeping its commitments. It will also be known for its integrity. Ethical businesses have a reputation for delivering quality and value-added, critical factors in today's competitive business environment.

Additional Reading

Personal Ethics in the Corporate World, Elizabeth Doty, Strategy + Business

Lean in Service Industries, Sales and Marketing – The Time Has Come, Ron Crabtree

Six Sigma – A Focus on Quality and Eliminating Variation, Ron Crabtree


About Patricia Linn

Patricia Rae Linn is a Senior Business Development and Marketing Strategist with over 27 years in growth strategy development and implementation. As an agency owner and consultant, Pat has fulfilled Federal, State, County and Municipal government contracts, and hundreds of diversified industry client contracts in the private and not-for-profit sectors. She is known for her vision, innovation, ability to influence perception, and ease of managing complex projects fluidly.

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