Not too long ago, I had an acquaintance (from my professional network) who failed to show up to our scheduled meeting. He didn’t call about canceling or rescheduling, and it was only when I reached out to him expecting him to show up did he tell me that he wouldn’t be able to make the appointment and made an excuse for the lapse (excuses are always irrelevant regardless of legitimacy). Toward the end of our phone call, he promised to call me back later that week to reschedule our meeting for the following week (and that he had set a reminder on his phone), which he never did. I decided I wouldn’t call him back either.
In this situation, the problem was that he failed to notify me in advance so that I could do something valuable with my time and attention rather than waiting for him. He took my time for granted, or at least that’s how it was perceived. This is the kind of thing that leads me to lose credibility in a person quickly. It lowers my trust in them, and I’ll think twice before meeting them because who’s to say it won’t happen again?
This experience reminded me of the value of keeping a promise and the effects of breaking it. For instance, sometimes we promise others that we’ll do something through an offhand remark, but we never get around to doing it (for whatever reason). That doesn’t relieve us of our accountability to ourselves (or to others). Besides, the promises we make needn’t be explicit at all; in fact, most times they’re not. If the other person is keeping track of your commitment, then they will hold you accountable. We should care more about keeping our promises (our word) than letting others remind us.
Let me explain this with an example: we are quick to break our promises with children. We promise them something casually or offhand while never expecting them to remember, but they do remember and hold us accountable on the day/time. Then, when we don’t keep our promise (citing some vague reason/excuse), it lowers their trust in us. To illustrate this point, here is the example I shared earlier in my piece on building relationships:
Another instance could be telling your kids that you’ll take them out to the movies on the weekend. This is an implicit promise you’ve made (whether you realize it or not). Now, when the weekend arrives, you might forget that promise, but you can be sure that your kids will remember. Making promises to others without following through lowers our trust level with others. Following up on our promises is part of keeping our integrity.
When I say, “promise”, I don’t mean like a big, hard promise (such as, “I promise to not make that mistake again”), even though those qualify as a promise just the same as “small ones”. A promise can often be something very small, such as, “Sure, I’ll call you”, or “Let me get back to you on that”, or “I’ll let you know about it”.
A promise is a commitment we make to ourselves and to others. This is what I think of promises:
A promise is saying that you’ll do something for others on/by a specific day/time. For instance, if you’ve committed to meet someone on a specific day/time, then you need to be there. Arriving late (by more than a few minutes) for our meetings or not showing up is unacceptable. Of course, there might be times when we can’t keep our promises due to unavoidable circumstances, at which point we need to negotiate our commitment with the other person as soon as possible so we don’t break it.
Why is it imperative that we keep our promises? Keeping our promises is the fastest way to build trust in any relationship (and even more so in the new ones). If we don’t keep our word, what remains? Honesty is saying what we do, but integrity is doing what we say. When we don’t keep our promises, we lower our trust in others, and if we keep doing so, it brings our integrity into question. Here’s the thing about integrity: if you have it, nothing else matters; if you don’t have it, nothing else matters.
Now that we know that it’s vital to keep our promises, how do we actually keep them? That’s simple, but not easy. Do the things you commit to. I’m reminded of an excerpt from an early 20th century essay:
If the youth should start out with the fixed determination that every statement he makes shall be the exact truth; that every promise he makes shall be redeemed to the letter; that every appointment shall be kept with the strictest faithfulness and with full regard for other men’s time; if he should hold his reputation as a priceless treasure, feel that the eyes of the world are upon him, that he must not deviate a hair’s breadth from the truth and right; if he should take such a stand at the outset, he would … come to have almost unlimited credit and the confidence of everybody who knows him.
Here’s advice to being a great salesman: Never make a promise you can’t keep (in work and in life), and expect the same from others. Hold them accountable to their promise as well. By the way, we can’t get others to keep their promises, nor is it our problem, but by them failing to do so, it would lower our trust in them, at which point we need to decide what to do without it becoming our problem (because it’s not).
I think the value of keeping our promises is lost on most people today. We say things, but we don’t always do them (for whatever reason), and we make excuses. We don’t hold ourselves accountable to our integrity. In doing so, we forget that our word is all we have. If we don’t use it responsibly, where is our honor?