Ever made a promise but didn’t keep it? What about one that you knew you couldn’t keep at the time you were making it? Chances are, if you’ve ever promised anyone anything, you’ve encountered a time where you just couldn’t keep your word. There may have been legitimate reasons for this, or maybe you just didn’t want to or think it was important. The reactions of those you made the promise to were most likely also determined by the nature of the promise, how much it meant to them, and whether they expected you would keep it. But does it really matter if we break our promises? Should we really be beholden to things we may have said on the spur of the moment, or under certain pressures or emotional conditions?
I’ve always tried to live by the adage, “don’t make promises you cannot keep.” The reason for this is because a person’s word does have value, whether it be in your personal or professional life. The value of our word is reflected in others perceptions of our credibility, our reliability, and our trustworthiness. It influences their desire to want to interact with us, both currently and into the future. Evidence of this is everywhere: the couple that breaks up after a broken promise, the customer who never returns to a store that did not honour an agreement or guarantee, or the politician who is voted out of office for failing to deliver on the claims that got them elected. But why is this so important? Why do we hold promises in such high regard?
A promise is a binding agreement; a vow, a guarantee, a covenant, a bond, or a commitment.It is more than a statement of intention, in that by making a promise you are pledging to ensure that you will do whatever it is you are promising to do.You could think of it as entering into a contract with someone, where you declare that a certain action or undertaking to be performed, under whatever conditions are agreed upon. Failure to keep your promise could be considered to be a ‘breach of contract’, with resultant penalties. In some cases, promises made ‘innocently’ can be enforced by legal means, as the law often does not differentiate between a spoken promise and a promise made through a formal agreement, such as a contract.
This is where a person’s word can gain or lose its value. You may have heard the phrase, “my word is gold”, and it can be useful to think of the value of a person’s word in such financial terms. Because a promise is not just a statement, but a guarantee, it holds a certain value. You could think of making a promise as making an investment in your word – your credibility, reliability, and trustworthiness – and giving it value. Keep your promise, and the value of your word ‘appreciates’. It increases its net worth, so the next time you make a promise, it is already at this new, higher value. To the promisee, this means your credibility, reliability and trustworthiness are already at a higher level, which means they will be more likely to ‘invest’ in your word, and subsequently in you.
What’s important to realise is that this is not just a one-to-one phenomenon. As your word increase in value with one person, that person then becomes your advocate, your ‘broker’ if you will. They share the value of your word with other people, and may even convince people to ‘invest’ in your word for themselves. In this way, the value of your word grows both actively – through direct interaction with individuals – and passively – through an on-flow effect to others. This is why we see marketing slogans such as, “1 million satisfied customers” – we think to ourselves, “if they were all satisfied, perhaps I will be too.”
Conversely, your word can just as easily ‘depreciate’ in value if you break your promises. Fail to deliver, or follow through, or do the complete opposite of what you guaranteed, and you can be sure that without extenuating circumstances to explain it, your word will suffer. This can have a compound effect if you tend to make and break the same promise over and over again. In fact, breaking the same promise multiple times can result in an exponential reduction in the value of your word. For an example of this, visit any court of law hearing divorce cases: you will likely hear many references to promises broken again and again.
This is also not confined to a one-to-one situation. If your word loses value with one person, you can almost be sure it will lose value to some extent with every person that one comes into contact with. This can have a disastrous effect on your credibility, reliability and trustworthiness, and can make future interactions with others very difficult, if not impossible. It is the reason why many businesses adopt the customer service policy of, “the customer is always right”.
So how do you give your word value? Or more importantly, how do you increase it’s value? Here’s four tips on how you can ensure your word is a worthwhile investment for others:
1. Only make promises you know you can keep – or at least that you know you have every intention to keep. If you know from the start that you cannot, or most likely will not, keep a promise, don’t make it in the first place. You are only setting yourself up for failure, and the fallout can be difficult to recover from. In fact, in many instances people may appreciate that you cannot promise something more than they will a broken promise.
2. Only promise what you can deliver – similar to the point above, this is about being able to ‘walk the talk’, that is, not overestimating or overstating what you can really do. Equally true for business as well as personal relationships, it can be easy to make a grandiose promise, yet fall short in being able to deliver on it. This is not always as bad as failing to keep a promise at all, however it can still damage the value of your word. For example, as a physiotherapist, I never promise my patients that I can cure them, because there are so many variables outside of my influence or control that could affect their final outcome – not the least of which being what they themselves do outside of treatment sessions. What I do promise them is that I will give them my very best level of care, because that is completely within my control and ability to deliver on.
3. No promise is too small – we always remember the big promises that people make or break, but there is great value in all the little ones that are made as well. It’s the little things that attribute to our consistency, our ability to deliver on something over and over and over again, and this can have a much higher net value than one large promise. All promises have value, and the smaller ones are every bit as valuable as the big ones. Think of it like building a wall: you can use the biggest bricks you can find, but it’s the mortar in between that holds it all together.
4. If you must break a promise, show good reason – in a given lifetime, very few people, if any, will be able to keep every promise they make. There are only so many things we can control, and even when we get all of these right, sometimes extenuating circumstances stop us from being able to deliver what we promised. If the reason for not keeping a promise can be seen as plausible, then you can minimise, even eliminate, any detrimental effect this might have on the value of your word. For example, a delivery company promises to deliver, “on time, every time.” But what if there is unusually heavy traffic? Or their vehicle breaks down? Or worse, they have an accident? Would it be fair to devalue their word under these circumstances? Ultimately, that is in the hands of the promisee. However, it is far more likely that someone will forgive a broken promise when it can be shown that it was beyond your control to keep it, than they will if they believe you could have done something to prevent it.
Whether it’s in business, in personal relationships, or even to yourself, invest in the value of your word, make it one of your greatest assets, and it will reward you accordingly.
Are promises important to you? How does a kept promise influence your interactions with others? What about a broken one? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.