October 31, 2022

Leaders Make And Keep Promises

In a world where distrust and suspicion is the default position, leaders must continue to make and keep promises because making and keeping promises is essential to keeping any organization or individual effort on mission.

Business and nonprofit executives, sales people, coaches, government officials, pastors, and parents are all charged with leading people where they need to go. These leaders must make and keep promises to everyone involved in the mission as long as it takes to reach — or retire — the goal. Leadership almost always involves initial macro promises and then continual micro promises.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but to win peoples trust, leaders must make more promises — not less. The key is to promise what you can deliver within the constraints of the unique situation, not to promise specific results that likely rely on uncontrollable variables.

Speaking Is Doing

Leadership is built on trust, and trust requires communication that motivates action through promises — promises that are both made and kept.

Promises are commitments to the mission that come in the form of declarations, directives, appeals, requests, and commands.

Promise-Based Management: The Essence of Execution

Critical initiatives stall for a variety of reasons—employee disengagement, a lack of coordination between functions, complex organizational structures that obscure accountability, and so on. To overcome such obstacles, managers must fundamentally rethink how work gets done. Most of the challenges stem from broken or poorly crafted commitments. That’s because every company is, at its heart, a dynamic network of promises made between employees and colleagues, customers, outsourcing partners, or other stakeholders. Executives can overcome many problems in the short term and foster productive, reliable workforces for the long term by practicing what the authors call “promise-based management,” which involves cultivating and coordinating commitments in a systematic way.” — Promise-Based Management: The Essence of Execution, written for Harvard Business Review in 2007 by Donald Sull and Charles Spinosa

In the remainder of this article, we use the key points from this timeless HBR article to point out current applications with a perfect promise to guide us from God’s word — The Promise.

Good Promises Are Public

"Promises that are made, monitored, and completed in public are more binding—and therefore more desirable—than side deals hammered out in private. When employees make promises out in the open, in front of their peers and bosses, they can’t conveniently forget what they said they would do, recall only a few conditions of a promise, or back out of an uncomfortable commitment entirely. Nor will they want to, in all likelihood: Psychologists have found that most people strive to make good on declarations they’ve made in public. After all, their reputations for competence and trustworthiness are on the line." - HBR

Applications -

- When leading an organization or team, make all the promises you intend to keep in public.

- If you lead different stakeholder groups (employees, customers, board, partners, etc.) ensure promises align the stakeholder groups — differences will drive division.

- Don’t make any promises in private that are not consistent with what you have made in public — no one-off promises or deals.

- When future compensation is promised, make sure there is a third party witness.

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” - John 8:12

Good Promises Are Active

"Negotiating a commitment should instead be an active, collaborative process. Misunderstandings will inevitably occur when providers and customers come together from different disciplines, business units, organizations, or countries, or when they are pursuing a novel initiative. Active conversations should comprise offers, counteroffers, commitments, and refusals rather than endless assertions about the state of nature." - HBR

Applications -

- Agree on success terms for all parties before making a promise.

- Understand and agree on conditional “gates” or “levers” for each promise to ensure no party suffers an unexpected loss.

- Don’t make promises on factors you cannot control.

- Be open to understanding how to modify the promise as factors change.

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” - James 4:13-15

Good Promises Are Voluntary

"In many organizations, people feel compelled to comply with each and every request in order to be seen as team players, please their bosses, or avoid looking like jerks. The most effective promises are not coerced; they are voluntary. The provider has viable options for saying something other than yes. Contracts signed under duress are not binding in a court of law. Similarly, psychologists have found, people assume little personal responsibility for promises made under threat (although they may comply out of fear). By contrast, people feel deeply obliged to follow through on a promise if they exercised free will in making it." - HBR

Applications -

- Promise only what you can control.

- Work to eliminate assumed promises or historical promises that are not relevant — “this is how we have always done it,” is not a promise.

- Don’t pressure others to make promises — give each person time and all the relevant information they need.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” - John 10:11 and 10:18

Good Promises Are Explicit

"Customers and providers should clearly acknowledge who will do what for whom and by when. Implicit promises are quick and easy to establish but often result in misunderstandings. The customer and the provider must be explicit about their promise throughout its life cycle.

Renegotiation of promises may not always be pleasant—it can be risky, time-consuming, and resource intensive—but it is critical. Customers and providers must have the scope to recalibrate in order to seize emerging business opportunities." - HBR

Applications -

- Understand the key drivers of success for the promise — agree on them and document each one.

- Clarify the uncontrollable aspects of the promise and document as necessary.  

- Understand and document the key assumptions of the promise to understand failure points and renegotiate as needed.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. - John 15:5-8

Good Promises Are Mission Based

"The most effective promises are mission based—that is, the customer explains the rationale for the request and invests time to ensure that the provider understands the mission. Sure, it can be cumbersome to explain where a division fits in the corporate strategy and where a particular request belongs within that division. But when providers understand why their promise matters, they are more likely to persist in executing even when they encounter conflicting demands and unforeseen roadblocks." - HBR

Applications -

- Only make promises that are consistent with the mission you have been given.

- Don’t make promises that could risk the success of the mission.

- Make promises that rely on what you know to be true.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” - Matthew 28:18-20

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Howard Graham
Howard Graham
Executive Director

In a world where distrust and suspicion is the default position, leaders must continue to make and keep promises because making and keeping promises is essential to keeping any organization or individual effort on mission.

Business and nonprofit executives, sales people, coaches, government officials, pastors, and parents are all charged with leading people where they need to go. These leaders must make and keep promises to everyone involved in the mission as long as it takes to reach — or retire — the goal. Leadership almost always involves initial macro promises and then continual micro promises.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but to win peoples trust, leaders must make more promises — not less. The key is to promise what you can deliver within the constraints of the unique situation, not to promise specific results that likely rely on uncontrollable variables.

Speaking Is Doing

Leadership is built on trust, and trust requires communication that motivates action through promises — promises that are both made and kept.

Promises are commitments to the mission that come in the form of declarations, directives, appeals, requests, and commands.

Promise-Based Management: The Essence of Execution

Critical initiatives stall for a variety of reasons—employee disengagement, a lack of coordination between functions, complex organizational structures that obscure accountability, and so on. To overcome such obstacles, managers must fundamentally rethink how work gets done. Most of the challenges stem from broken or poorly crafted commitments. That’s because every company is, at its heart, a dynamic network of promises made between employees and colleagues, customers, outsourcing partners, or other stakeholders. Executives can overcome many problems in the short term and foster productive, reliable workforces for the long term by practicing what the authors call “promise-based management,” which involves cultivating and coordinating commitments in a systematic way.” — Promise-Based Management: The Essence of Execution, written for Harvard Business Review in 2007 by Donald Sull and Charles Spinosa

In the remainder of this article, we use the key points from this timeless HBR article to point out current applications with a perfect promise to guide us from God’s word — The Promise.

Good Promises Are Public

"Promises that are made, monitored, and completed in public are more binding—and therefore more desirable—than side deals hammered out in private. When employees make promises out in the open, in front of their peers and bosses, they can’t conveniently forget what they said they would do, recall only a few conditions of a promise, or back out of an uncomfortable commitment entirely. Nor will they want to, in all likelihood: Psychologists have found that most people strive to make good on declarations they’ve made in public. After all, their reputations for competence and trustworthiness are on the line." - HBR

Applications -

- When leading an organization or team, make all the promises you intend to keep in public.

- If you lead different stakeholder groups (employees, customers, board, partners, etc.) ensure promises align the stakeholder groups — differences will drive division.

- Don’t make any promises in private that are not consistent with what you have made in public — no one-off promises or deals.

- When future compensation is promised, make sure there is a third party witness.

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” - John 8:12

Good Promises Are Active

"Negotiating a commitment should instead be an active, collaborative process. Misunderstandings will inevitably occur when providers and customers come together from different disciplines, business units, organizations, or countries, or when they are pursuing a novel initiative. Active conversations should comprise offers, counteroffers, commitments, and refusals rather than endless assertions about the state of nature." - HBR

Applications -

- Agree on success terms for all parties before making a promise.

- Understand and agree on conditional “gates” or “levers” for each promise to ensure no party suffers an unexpected loss.

- Don’t make promises on factors you cannot control.

- Be open to understanding how to modify the promise as factors change.

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” - James 4:13-15

Good Promises Are Voluntary

"In many organizations, people feel compelled to comply with each and every request in order to be seen as team players, please their bosses, or avoid looking like jerks. The most effective promises are not coerced; they are voluntary. The provider has viable options for saying something other than yes. Contracts signed under duress are not binding in a court of law. Similarly, psychologists have found, people assume little personal responsibility for promises made under threat (although they may comply out of fear). By contrast, people feel deeply obliged to follow through on a promise if they exercised free will in making it." - HBR

Applications -

- Promise only what you can control.

- Work to eliminate assumed promises or historical promises that are not relevant — “this is how we have always done it,” is not a promise.

- Don’t pressure others to make promises — give each person time and all the relevant information they need.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” - John 10:11 and 10:18

Good Promises Are Explicit

"Customers and providers should clearly acknowledge who will do what for whom and by when. Implicit promises are quick and easy to establish but often result in misunderstandings. The customer and the provider must be explicit about their promise throughout its life cycle.

Renegotiation of promises may not always be pleasant—it can be risky, time-consuming, and resource intensive—but it is critical. Customers and providers must have the scope to recalibrate in order to seize emerging business opportunities." - HBR

Applications -

- Understand the key drivers of success for the promise — agree on them and document each one.

- Clarify the uncontrollable aspects of the promise and document as necessary.  

- Understand and document the key assumptions of the promise to understand failure points and renegotiate as needed.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. - John 15:5-8

Good Promises Are Mission Based

"The most effective promises are mission based—that is, the customer explains the rationale for the request and invests time to ensure that the provider understands the mission. Sure, it can be cumbersome to explain where a division fits in the corporate strategy and where a particular request belongs within that division. But when providers understand why their promise matters, they are more likely to persist in executing even when they encounter conflicting demands and unforeseen roadblocks." - HBR

Applications -

- Only make promises that are consistent with the mission you have been given.

- Don’t make promises that could risk the success of the mission.

- Make promises that rely on what you know to be true.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” - Matthew 28:18-20

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