Keeping our word

“A man/woman of his words”

This refers to people who always keep their promise and will follow through.

We have our share of friends and acquaintances that we know we can always count on. Then, we have those where we know better than to expect anything.

How often do you see this today ? How often have you found yourself waiting in vain on someone to fulfill their promise ? Sadly, in my experience, too often. Have I been too busy previously to not have noticed it ? Perhaps I have more time now and observe little things. How often have I been guilty of the same ?

Thinking back, when the kids were little, we promised to bring them to places, buy their favorite toys, eat ice cream. They remember and when we fail to fulfill any of these promises, you are bound to hear, “But you promised”. We then sheepishly do whatever it is that we should have done.

Somewhere along the way when we grow up, we seem to have lost this. Sometimes it is just niceties. We run into an old friend, and a common parting remark is, “Let’s catch up for a drink”. More often than not, it doesn’t happen and we never think twice about it. We can chalk this up as just polite exchange, and it doesn’t cause any harm. Fair enough.

Or we promise to fix the tap, and doesn’t do it for weeks. If the wife nags sufficiently, we grudgingly do it. Well, if we are so reluctant to do it, why promise in the first place.

There has been many instances where we get our hopes up because a friend says something like, “I’ll be very happy to write you a recommendation”. We go to them, it goes all quiet. We wait for another 2 weeks, and send a gentle reminder, it stays quiet.

Or someone tells us that they can give us contacts. We follow-up, nothing happens, we send them another email, it somehow disappears into some black holes. Again, we can chalk it up to be another “no big deal”.

My question is, why do we make promises in the first place when we have no intention of fulfilling them ? What does it say of us as a person ? For something that honestly is not of such great consequence, we build up a bad reputation. Is it worth it ?

Is it because the term friend has been so diluted that the essence of friendship is being diluted too ? Is it because we “meet” online rather than face-to-face, and the embarrassment factor of not keeping our words is lesser ? Or are we doing this because it is done to us ?

Regardless of the reasons, we must strive to honor our words. Do what you say and say what you do. If we aren’t sure whether we can fulfill a promise, make it clear and make it known. Set the right expectation.

In business and the professional world, words can have more commercial consequence. We promise something to a client, colleague or staff. They have the right to expect its fulfillment. Someone who is always true to their words will be respected and recognized, those who fail often will also be remembered for the wrong reasons.

Here are a few tips to consider.

  • Be specific about what you say or promise. This avoid over-promising, or setting the wrong expectation.
  • Provide a timeline wherever possible. Doing so forces us to think about getting it done within the promised timeline.
  • Put it in your to-do list or calendar. As you review your day or week, it serves as a reminder. If necessary, it also gives you a chance to let the other party know that the action will be delayed. At a minimum, you will have to chance to get back and say that you are not able to fulfill it. It may not be ideal but the other party will appreciate your honesty. Your reputation will even be enhanced.

Let me end with a personal story.

In the early 1990s, as a novice manager, I hired a number of programmers from India via a contracting firm. One approached me one day to say that his father is gravely ill and he has to go back home to see him. The contracting firm recommends that I deny the request. I didn’t take that advice. A few weeks later, I learned that this programmer has taken a job with another company. You can imagine how stupid I felt.

A year or so went by, and another programmer came to me, saying that his grandmother is gravely ill. He wants to go back to India to see her. The contracting firm gave me the same advice. Don’t let him go. I should learn my lesson, right. But I gave in. The programmer looked me in the eye and said, “I promise you I will be back”.

Couple weeks later, he came back. To this date, he is one of my most trusted friend.

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