Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Francis Wade | Erasing the pain of broken company promises

Published:Sunday | April 9, 2017 | 4:00 AM

Are you the kind of businessperson who sometimes keeps your word and sometimes doesn't? What difference does it make to your company?

A few years ago, a client advised me that he had a policy of not paying for weekend work. Unfortunately, I had already worked on Saturday and Sunday at his last-minute request. To make matters worse, he conveyed this news over the phone when I called to ask "Why is this cheque less than I expect?"

While it's easy to paint him as a villain in this story, the fact is that there are many business people who have a loose relationship with their word. To some extent, we all do. When push comes to shove, and things become inconvenient or awkward, we abandon our original intentions. In that moment, we justify our actions to ourselves: they make perfect sense. Unfortunately, they create problems for others.

 

WEB OF PROMISES

 

Most of the time, we cannot see this impact. But we should take note. Every organisation depends on a network of employees, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders who are tied to each other by an invisible web of promises.

In great companies, there is a strong relationship between making and keeping promises. Employees see the interaction as one that is sacred, engaging the honour of both parties. Fulfilling promises is critical to the firm's success, so everyone treats them as important, existing only in black and white terms.

By contrast, weak companies operate like the client I mentioned. Promises are wholly contingent on circumstances; only a poor signal of intent, which often changes. Often, no one is sure when a reliable promise has actually been made.

How can you use these two extremes as an inspiration and a warning to move your company in the right direction?

Teach Everyone a New Discipline. Recently, my firm undertook a study of Jamaicans moving to live and work in Trinidad. One of the surprises our subjects discovered is that promises aren't viewed as seriously as they expected in the twin-island republic.

 

IMPLICATIONS

 

This is a practical difference which has everyday implications. For example, when we lead transformation programmes, one principle people remember is that of "integrity", which can be taken to mean "doing what you said you would do". As you may imagine, teaching this principle effectively means varying the way we deliver it from one country to the next and between companies.

For example, in Jamaica, we want our colleagues to act more like Paul Bogle and George William Gordon, but for ourselves, we still crave the freedom to get away with Bredda Anansi tricks. While this point of view is inherited, it reflects a failure to see the big picture: companies thrive when people make a supreme effort to stick to their word, regardless of the situation. When they stick to their word when no one is watching, with others who are powerless, on even small issues, it's no minor matter.

It's important because anyone who makes a promise puts himself in a battle against life's circumstances. The random nature of our world resists this person's commitment. It also militates against organisations that dare articulate a clear vision.

This is why a certain resilience around promises must be taught in companies it cannot be taken for granted, and it doesn't come for free.

Learn techniques to prevent promises from disappearing. But making an effort to keep one's promises isn't enough. In this technology-driven time with lots of distractions, it has also become more difficult to remember all the promises you make.

Now, you need far more than your memory - you must use external devices if you hope to avoid falling behind. Furthermore, the more you progress up the corporate ladder, the more promises you are expected to be able to make and keep. Mastering promise management is a requirement.

Fortunately, the tools required to become skilful are to be found on the average smartphone or laptop. Paper can also be used, but it has its shortcomings.

 

TRAINING ISKEY

 

Most companies leave employees to develop these skills and learn to use these tools in an ad hoc manner, leading to haphazard results. Then, promises aren't kept because the skills to do so aren't taught. This can be corrected via training or coaching.

Open up and reveal hidden promises. The few companies that master the above steps soon realise that they are not enough. Hidden in the culture of each company are unwritten, unspoken expectations that are every bit as powerful as explicit promises.

For example, every organisation has invisible expectations around the speed of email replies. Making these standards transparent would save employees from the trial and error process they usually have to navigate.

Companies that get people to forge a strong relationship with their word can thrive when others fail. Sometimes it's a direct way to produce a breakthrough in performance that meets everyone's aspirations.

- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of "Perfect Time-Based Productivity". To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com