pinky swear

5 Steps to Resuscitate a Dying Promise

Last Updated: May 26, 2022 | Leadership

Mother and daughter making a pinkie promiseBy Marc Smith Sacks, MA, PCC

Our ability to make and fulfill promises is our most important and fundamental business asset. As we become more collaborative and agile, our ability to manage and honor promises impeccably will distinguish value creators from value destroyers.

But our best laid plans get derailed. Things break, priorities shift, and people let us down. In the aftermath, running for cover, freezing with heads down, or hunting for targets strains relationships, erodes trust, tarnishes public identities, and demoralizes teams.

Raise your hand if you’ve been there and know what I am talking about. With so much at stake, managing promises in jeopardy can seem like a daunting task. Perhaps you even have some promises today that have you baffled about what to do next.

Well, there’s good news. While it takes at least two people to allow a promise to fail, it only takes one to recover a promise. Whether you are a customer (on the receiving end) or a performer (on the delivery side of a promise), you can get an optimal value solution in 5 steps.

With the right questions and moves, you can discover the root cause of the promise in jeopardy and craft a clear line of site strategy for recovering it. I’m going to walk you through a step by step process that will give you more options for getting things moving again.

Step 1: Assume Radical Responsibility.

People will do what they do. Market and environmental forces will do the same; but you can only control what you do or don’t do. You have to be willing to commit to being the cause, no matter what is happening around you. Ask yourself this question: What have I done or not done that contributed to the current situation?

Step 2: Clarify Facts and Fiction.

This helps you manage what you know and don’t know. Start by listing only the facts. Anything that is fiction, especially judgments that reflect poorly on other people, should be suspended until you know all the facts. Recognize that we all see through colored lenses, and removing yours will help you get closer to the truth.

Step 3: Review the formation of the promise.

Was it a good one? Donald Sull and Charles Spinosa’s HBR Article, Promise Based Management (June 2003) lists five characteristics of a well-made promise:

  • Public: People tend to be more committed to deliver the goods when they know their reputation is on the line. Initial public declarations, stand-ups, and dashboards keep the promise in the public light throughout the life of the promise.
  • Active: Effective customers and performers actively negotiate commitments, hashing out diverse perspectives, making clear requests, and arriving at committed responses.
  • Voluntary: Coercion and pressure tactics that succeed in getting a “yes” have a hidden cost. If performers cannot say “no”, then you cannot trust their “yes”. Performers who are encouraged to refuse requests or make counteroffers tend to be more reliable, fulfilled, and engaged.
  • Explicit: Customers and performers clearly acknowledge who will do what by when. As part of the agreement, conditions of satisfaction are made explicit, resources and talent secured, timelines and plans articulated, and frequency and rhythm of communication between customer and performer are established.
  • Mission-based: Missions identify and inspire. When performers are clear on the meaning and importance of their work, they also access to powerful emotions, like persistence, determination, ambition, and curiosity, which fuel innovation when roadblocks and challenges emerge.

Step 4: Review the execution up to this point.

This is where Customers and Performers can fall asleep at the wheel. Have you been checking in? How often? Are you acknowledging achievements of milestones or ignoring them? Are you drilling down into the data to verify assessments going forward? Are you anticipating surprises? If obstacles emerge, are you making sure there is a plan and resources to overcome them?

Step 5: Take action.

Last, but not least, once you identify what is jeopardizing your agreement, you need to take action. Here are a few options:

  • If you have clarity on what needs to happen, do it.
  • If you are still not clear on something, have a customer/performer dialogue, followed by a commitment conversation to get things back on track. Be willing to renegotiate. Perhaps the promise could be recovered in a different time frame or with additional resources and talent. When faced with the alternative, this may be the best option for taking care of the customer’s needs.

Some promises are beyond recovery, and while we cannot recover every promise, we can always honor them. Honoring promises maintains and even strengthens integrity in relationships and protects the dignity and morale of people involved. When you have exhausted your options and concluded that you cannot recover or renegotiate a promise, there are still two ways to honor a promise:

  • Customers can cancel – If the customer is no longer committed to the promise, they can cancel their request, which informs the performer, who can use their time, energy, and attention in other ways to create value.
  • Performers can revoke – If the performer is no longer committed to fulfilling their promise, they can revoke it, which informs the customer, so they can take action to get their need taken care of some other way.

Managing promises requires integrity, courage, and radical responsibility (reminder). It’s like building a muscle. The more you do it, the better you get. The better you get, the more value you bring to the table. Next time, it won’t feel so daunting!

To work with Marc or to find out more on how you can master commitments and create more value and satisfaction on your team, please contact us for more information.

Related Posts