7 essentials for leaders on keeping promises and sustaining trust

Want to alienate your employees, chase away customers and flush your business right down the tubes? Just fail to honor your commitments. Instead, be true to your word with this guidance.

Leaders make a lot of promises.

They promise high-quality products and experiences to customers, careers that offer opportunity and purpose to employees, ambitious strategies to accelerate innovation to investors, and social and environmental responsibility to society at large.

In practice, though, many leaders struggle to keep their commitments.

Under the pressure of a quota or deadline, or amid the turmoil of constant change, some leaders experience “commitment drift,” in which crucial promises are forgotten or broken. Commitment drift erodes trust and undermines relationships.

It’s challenging for leaders to remember commitments over time, much less to communicate them clearly, hand them off between departments or adjust them as priorities change.

To avoid commitment drift, leaders must adopt the following practices:

  1. Make fewer, better commitments. Too often, professionals make promises that miss the mark for stakeholders. A sales leader might offer a discount to close a sale, when what the customer wants is an assurance that the company is acting as a trusted advisor. When you take the time to understand your stakeholders’ needs, you can make meaningful commitments.
  2. Track your primary commitment. The sheer volume of commitments leaders are asked to make can result in promises they can’t keep, or forgetting the promises they’ve made as newer ones grab their time and attention. Tracking promises doesn’t have to be elaborate; software tools can help you review and update your list.
  3. Ask for commitment from others. Leaders are often mystified by the lack of execution after major initiatives are launched. Yet these same leaders may fail to articulate exactly what commitment they’re asking others to make. A simple statement of what you’re asking others to commit to and how they can get started can turn the situation around.
  4. Connect the dots between departments. When leaders focus narrowly on what they “own,” they focus less on connecting the dots with other groups. These connections could have the greatest overall impact on company results. Companies improve enormously by ensuring that teams understand how their work fits together and by motivating them to base their priorities on the company’s goals.
  5. Focus on processes, not heroics. Leaders frequently rely on the heroic efforts of committed employees as a substitute for effective processes, ultimately wearing out their employees’ good will. Having poor processes, or tampering with processes without understanding them, creates inefficiency, waste, delays and rework. When companies invest in developing repeatable processes, they make it easy for employees to deliver on promises and free up their creativity for the next big idea.
  6. Know what commitments you’re inheriting in a new role. If new leaders jump into action without knowing what was promised in the past, they can unwittingly violate prior commitments, undermine trust and increase the chances of resistance. Ask, “What promises have been made?” when you start a new role to ensure the important ones are kept—or are adjusted with respect and consideration.
  7. Continually check for contradictions . Your consistency—or lack thereof—lets people know whether you can be trusted. When employees find leaders speaking out of both sides of their mouth, they assume the worst. Yet this kind of contradiction happens all too easily. Acting with integrity means continually integrating functions to avoid the contradictions that erode trust.

Reliable promises engender the confidence that encourages customers to buy, employees to engage, shareholders to invest and the public to trust. Unfortunately, leaders frequently make decisions without paying attention to what was promised, what they can truly deliver or whether they’ve kept their commitments over time.

Download the free white paper, “Creating a Consistent Message,” to discover how to keep your organization’s message and voice on track across all your internal communications platforms.

When leaders pay more attention to commitments, they generate momentum.

Invest in systems, rewards and habits that make it easy to make solid commitments, connect the dots with other departments and remember promises. That’s how thriving businesses create an upward spiral of trust and strong results.

Michelle M. Smith is O.C. Tanner’s vice president of business development. She has been named one of the “Ten Best and Brightest Women in the Incentive Industry” and is president emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association and past president of the FORUM for People Performance at Northwestern University. A version of this article originally appeared on OC Tanner’s ‘a’ Magazine.


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