Slippy, sloppy: The real reason businesses regularly fail to uphold agreements



Talk about promises enough, and you’ll quickly find not only do people fail to consider them, but when they do, it’s like they’re handling a bomb — something slightly unstable, out of their control, that could go off at any time.   

So, I’m always looking for different ways to approach promises.

People insert a variety of words to avoid using the term ‘promise’, and not many help them do it better. However, last week, listening to a recent Knowledge Project podcast, I stumbled on a conversation between host Shane Parrish and a guy called Jim Dethmer

Jim is the founder of The Conscious Leadership Group, and he calls them ‘agreements’. Now, I know the legal minds who are reading this might want to squabble over the use of the term, and yes, it has a particular place in the pantheon of legal and promissory theory.

Still, I’ll defer to Jim’s definition for ‘purpose’ here: “An agreement is between two or more people, and is anything I say I will or won’t do. The key here is they need to be clear — who is going to do what by when. Anything else is sloppy.”

(Note: the whole podcast is great, but start listening at 41 minutes for a deep-dive into how to make clear agreements.)

Clear agreements are the mother’s milk of making promises. When I look at broken promises and the resulting collateral damage to the brand result, a lack of clarity about what was agreed always jumps out. 

Side-by-side with that is endemic reluctance or agreeing to stuff you don’t want to do. Sure, in any organisation, there is going to be a huge chunk of things you don’t feel like you have a choice on.

More from Jim: “When you make agreements you don’t really want to make, a couple of things are going to happen you won’t do it, or you’ll struggle to do it because you didn’t want to in the first place, or you’ll do a crummy job, it will be half-assed.”

Sure, in organisations, an agreement is sometimes mandated and often coerced. However, even in those situations, you can still exert endeavour to get clear. And perhaps, in the process, find a glimmer of ‘want to do’ in the ‘have to do’.

It’s worth the effort. Jim’s research shows a pandemic of unwilling or downright slopping agreements being made in organisations, with 40-60% of agreements not kept. Let me rephrase that: organisations break 40-60% of the promises they make.

Take a minute to consider the impact. How on earth could anyone interacting with an organisation that breaks 60% of its promises ever hope to feel confident about that relationship?

If you had a friend, who broke 60% of their promises, you probably wouldn’t be friends for long. I suspect that statistic is writ large across the personal lives of people lining up for divorce courts. 

If thinking about promises sends you back to the safety of fuzzy intentions, take a step to the right, and look at what you’ve agreed to do. With whom. And when. If you can’t cleanly identify those elements, go back and talk to the person your agreement is with and gain clarity. It’s a bilateral process. There is always a promisor and promisee.

As the last step, always capture whatever you agree to. Write it down and play it back — not to cover your ass, but to ensure the agreement is explicit and understood on both sides.

Strip out the legalese of contracts, and that’s what you should have: clear agreement.

If I asked, could you clearly (what, who, when) list the agreements you’ve made today?

See you in two weeks.

NOW READ: I didn’t keep my promise — now what?

NOW READ: Sitting inside permission is a promise


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