People & Human Resources

Are you a promise keeper or a promise breaker?

Engel Schmidl /

Making promises, deals and commitments are standard office practices, but these things are also done very badly! A promise is a verbal or written commitment to do something.

This can be something as minor as “yes, I’ll have lunch with you tomorrow” to “you can rely on me, I promise I will have everything finished by close of business Friday”.

Yet these promises are broken on a daily basis. The lunch gets rescheduled, the deadline isn’t met, the call back doesn’t happen. Why?

Miscalculation of time required

This is the most common reason that promises are broken in the workplace. It is true that most people are helpful and willing to please others. This means that the default answer to a request is “yes”. The person then needs to allocate time towards fulfilling that promise, but because it has come from outside the existing plan for the day or week (i.e. the list of things that MUST be completed) then the promised task is the most expendable. You need to mentally allocate time to any requests of your effort – and this will come at the expense of something else. It may be worth considering what you are willing to sacrifice in order to keep a promise to avoid this double booking.

Keeping up polite appearances

We would all usually prefer to be liked than disliked, so most of us have a default answer of ‘yes’. Some people will even put themselves under enormous stress to try to accommodate the commitments they made to others on the spur of the moment. In a bid to avoid disappointing someone we will often overload ourselves. Then there are less formal promises such as “I’ll call you for a catch up when I’m in Sydney”. It shows an eagerness to interact, and can make someone feel great. However, avoiding the promised act will result in a slight degradation of the relationship.

If you break a promise

No doubt there will be a time when you break a promise. Whether you over commit to someone or offer platitudes that aren’t fulfilled you need to take a few important steps. The first step is to make contact and apologise. This includes acknowledging the error and suggesting an appropriate way to make up the difference. Secondly, you need to assess within yourself why the promise was broken. Were you trying to be polite or did you miscalculate the time and effort involved? Was it within your control or not? Should you really be making certain types of promises when you live a hectic and unpredictable lifestyle?

If someone breaks a promise to you

Unfortunately we will all be let down by someone at some point. It can be terrible having to face a manager or customer, informing them that you have broken a promise because someone you were relying on broke a promise to you. It is essential that you outlay the impact of the broken promise – the other person needs to understand the importance of what they offered you. If it was a more casual promise then there usually isn’t a lot that you need to do, except perhaps to reconsider your opinion of how reliable your acquaintance is.

Avoiding broken promises

Promises are as much about honesty as they are about time management. To avoid broken promises you need to engender an honest and open environment. If a busy person makes a promise to you, ask them “are you sure you have enough time for that?” and make sure they have an exit. You can achieve this by saying, “Let me know if it gets closer to the date and you aren’t able to complete it”. This approach shows that you are reasonable – it builds trust.

Overall – it is very important for your career that you can make and keep promises effectively. It is an essential skill to building rapport and relationships, as well as being an outcome of strong time management skills.

Promises are about commitment!

Eve Ash has produced a wide range of resources and books and also a range of podcasts – check out ASK EVE!

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