The Five Qualities Of A Good Promise

The Five Qualities Of A Good Promise

In our family, you can count on me to make sure everyone gets a hug before school (even if it’s not reciprocated), make lots of plans for the weekend (even when a little down time might do us well), and make three times as much food for Shabbat as we can eat (to guarantee leftovers for the week ahead). What you can’t count on me to make is a lot of promises. That’s not to say that I’m flaky, difficult or that I have commitment issues. It’s just that I know that when I make promises, I have very few chances to renege without losing my credibility altogether.

Here’s a typical conversation in my house:

Jacob: “Can we go see [insert painfully ridiculous kids movie here] this weekend?”

Me: “Hopefully.”

Jacob: “Does that mean it’s likely?”

Me: “Yes, it’s likely.”

Jacob: “So…you’re pretty sure we can go, right?”

Me: “Yes. Pretty sure.”

Jacob, feeling encouraged and emboldened: “Promise?”

Me: “Nope. I can’t promise. But I will do my best to try to make it happen.”

Jacob, deflated but accepting: “Fine. But I really, really want to go!”

Me: “I know, honey.”

Sometimes, the conversation ends there. And other times, usually when I’m so busy I can’t breathe, the conversation keeps going. Wouldn’t it save time to offer a promise to end the conversation, and the offer an apology when I need to break it? Shouldn’t a kid learn that with life comes an occasional disappointment? Yes and yes — but not this way. Not when it takes just a little extra effort and just a few minutes of additional time to model that a promise is serious business, and breaking one even more so.

The Talmud (Sukkah) tells us: Never promise something to a child and not give it to him, because in that way he learns to lie. While I personally might substitute “not honor his commitments” for the harsher word “lie” when dealing with my own child, in this election season, our candidates routinely equate broken commitments with outright dishonesty. Even if the candidate’s intentions to lower taxes, pass a bill into law, or change policy were good (if perhaps overly ambitious), his detractors blast right past intentionality and focus on outcome: the change either did or did not happen. If it did not, a promise was broken – end of story. Perhaps we should heed the wise words of Bernard Baruch, who warned us: “Vote for the man who promises the least; he'll be the least disappointing.”

Whether we are dealing with a candidate, a family member, a colleague or a friend, when we make a promise, we usually – hopefully – have every intention of keeping it. Promises kept build personal, interpersonal, team, communal, brand and organizational trust, and cost us credibility and reliability when broken. The Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service focuses on this truism, alleviating us of some of responsibility we shoulder and the guilt we feel when we do break our vows. But even though defaulting on our commitments is seen as an inevitable part of life, letting ourselves off the hook should be the exception, rather than the rule.

So how can we fortify the promises we make to ourselves and to others in our personal and professional lives? By cultivating the five qualities of well-made promise, as highlighted by Donald N. Sull and Charles Spinoza in their Harvard Business Review article, “Promise-Based Management: The Essence of Execution”:

1. Well-Made Promises are Public.

When we make an announcement in front of one or more witnesses about what we are going to do, our reputations are at stake. We cannot selectively “forget” our commitments because we will and should be called on it. Whether you are making a promise to your staff member that you will honor your weekly supervision meeting time, or you are making a pledge to yourself that you’ll hit the gym four times a week, spread the word. You’ll be more likely to keep a commitment that you’ve made in public.

2. Well-Made Promises are Active.

A passive promise is one where someone has made a request and you answer, “uh-huh” and then go right back to what you were doing. A passive promise is also one made when someone is yelling or crying at you and you agree to keep the peace. (Note: I am writing this in Orlando, which I now believe to be the nation’s capital of passive promises to screaming children). An active promise is one where you, as Sull and Spinoza put it, “negotiate [your] commitment—including unearthing conflicting assumptions that could spawn misunderstandings.”

3. Well-Made Promises are Voluntary.

“Now promise Mommy that you won’t take cookies without asking/take money from my dresser/watch Sponge Bob/etc.” If you’ve ever asked a child to make a promise, chances are you’ve had a child break a promise. Sull and Spinoza warn us that unless you have the power and freedom to decline a request or make a counter-offer, you can’t make a solid promise. So when asking for commitments from people in our lives and work where there’s an inequality of power, make sure that they truly believe that they can say no or offer other options. And keep in mind that a pledge that you make under duress may be one you end up disavowing next Yom Kippur.

4. Well-Made Promises are Explicit.

Would you rather have your boss promise to sign-off on your expense report “ASAP” or “by Friday at noon”? Are you more likely to stick to your commitment to “watch what you eat” or to “eat three salads a week”? You need to be unambiguously clear with yourself and others about what you’ll do, by when, how it’s coming, and how it turns out in order for a promise to stick.

5. Well-Made Promises are Mission-based.

When I made a promise to my children that I would not travel for work on their birthday (made easier by the fact that they’re twins), it was a mission-driven promise to honor our shared values of family, loyalty and togetherness. When a donor pledges a philanthropic gift to a charitable organization, it’s usually a mission-driven decision, such as a personal sense of commitment to giving tzedakah or an investment in the cause itself. When a supervisor promises to let a direct report work from home on Wednesdays, he makes a mission-driven decision to do what’s best and what’s right for the staff person, the team and the organization. The beauty of mission-based promises is that when roadblocks arise – and they will – the promise-maker can refocus on creative ways to meet the spirit of the promise, even if some details of the promise need to be renegotiated.

I can’t promise that making and asking for better promises will change your life, but it can pave the path to more trust in your personal and professional relationships.

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