You are probably familiar with that old saying that the most beautiful sound anyone can hear is the sound of their own name. Right, [your name here]?

Well, the second most beautiful sound might be the phrase, "I promise." We all want to hear that when we're asking for a romantic commitment, a deal on a used car, someone to drive us to the airport, or help with a task or project.

And, since we know how much we love hearing that phrase from others, we have a tendency to use it ourselves--even when we shouldn't. And that's a problem.

In our work lives, leaders need to be known as keeping their word.  We want people to take us at our word, but we also don't want to be taken advantage of by people who interpret our vague nod as an agreement to take over an unpleasant task.

You probably already feel that your word is your bond, that you meet your commitments. So, you may feel a bit defensive when I tell you this:

You're probably doing it wrong.

Let's divide the term "promises" into three categories: overt commitments ("I will handle the Smith account this month"); implied commitments ("I will be at the office for meetings that involve my team"); and self-commitments("I will put away $50 a week in savings").

When you make excuses for why you didn't do all the paperwork on the Smith account, blow off the meeting that happens too early on a Monday morning and let a colleague deal with it, or raid your savings to buy shoes for the third time this quarter, who loses? Not just people you may be letting down, but ultimately, your whole sense of yourself and what your word is worth.

None of us is perfect; we all have commitment lapses--intentional or not--from time to time. The question is, how often and under what circumstances?

So, Try This

It's likely you haven't examined your promise-making and promise-keeping record closely, but doing so could be an opportunity to examine how and if you make and keep commitments to the people you work with, live with, and are related to.

In just one week, you could change everything about the way you relate to other people and the way they relate to you. And it boils down to practicing a very simple edict coined in a phrase by my mentors, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner: "Do what you say you will do."

So, here's the challenge:

For the next seven days, keep track of every (I mean every) promise you make, even the smallest ones. Write them down on a notepad or, if you're the computer type, make a simple spreadsheet:

  1. Write down every specific promise or commitment--to yourself, family members, business associates, clients, or prospects.
  2. Write down every implied promise or commitment. This includes statements you might casually make that others could interpret as a commitment or promise.
  3. At the end of every day, see how you did. If there are promises you made but did not yet keep, roll those over to the following day.
  4. Assess your performance at the end of the week: How many promises did you keep?
  5. Reflect on what you learned about yourself, the way you communicate your word, and determine what you'll change for next week and beyond.

You might find that you tend to promise to do things just to get someone to stop asking. You might find that you agree to tasks on the assumption that the person asking will forget, didn't really mean it, or doesn't care if you do it or not. Maybe you'll find that you are agreeing to do too many things--even if you are able to follow through on every one of them.

I suspect you'll find that you simply need to be more thoughtful about giving your word. And just the conscious awareness of your own proclivities to commit will make a huge difference in your ability to actually follow through when you do.

I promise.