Treasure Original Source:

We must not promise what we ought not, lest we be called on to perform what we cannot.” – Abraham Lincoln

Your promises are not just conditions of satisfaction you fulfill in the future; they are guarantees of integrity you honor in the present.

Satisfaction happens later, integrity happens now. Satisfaction is conditional; it depends on factors you can’t control. Integrity is unconditional; it depends on choices you do control.

Integrity is essential for the success of individuals and organizations. Without integrity there is no coordination, no trust, no ethics. Yet most people focus on fulfillment. Integrity implies a sincere intention to fulfill your promises, but it means much more than that: Integrity requires that you keep your word even when you cannot deliver what you promised.

My previous post suggested how to make clear commitments. This post suggests how you can manage your commitments with unconditional integrity. My next post will suggest how you can demand that others do the same.

Promises You Intend To Keep

In order to commit with integrity, you must intend to keep your promise. This implies that you must believe the following:

1. You understand the request. If you don’t understand the conditions of satisfaction (including time), then you cannot expect to fulfill them. You are signing a contract that you haven’t read.

2. You have a robust plan. If your plan can be derailed by likely contingencies, then you cannot expect it to withstand their impact. You are hoping for the best, but not preparing for the worst.

3. You have the necessary skills and resources. If you don’t have the required skills and resources, then you cannot expect to finish the job. You are writing a fraudulent check with no funds in your account.

Unless you believe you fulfill each and every one of these requirements, then you cannot make a promise in good conscience. And if at any point during the delivery process you change your mind, you cannot maintain your promise without debasing your word.

Of course, you can make an honest mistake, but you cannot tell an honest lie. You may mistakenly believe that you can deliver when in fact you cannot. But you may not honestly say that you will deliver when you believe you cannot.

There are, unfortunately, too many examples of lack of integrity in organizations:

  • People leave a meeting where they were tasked with action items muttering, “What are we supposed to do now?”
  • A manager makes a promise, without checking that his team has the skills and resources (especially time) required for the project.
  • A salesperson promises immediate delivery of an item without checking if it’s available.
  • “Priorities shift” and someone applies committed resources to a different task.
  • A small breakdown justifies big delays—the typical “traffic” excuse.
  • Things go off track but nobody notices until it’s too late.

Integrity Means “No Surprises”

Imagine you made a promise with integrity, but something happens and you now believe that your commitment is at risk. How do you preserve your integrity?

You do it with an apology.

An integrity-preserving apology requires much more than a quick “Sorry.” Expressing regret is a good start, but not nearly enough. To honor your word you must announce the breakdown immediately, explain what happened, accept accountability, and minimize the damage to your creditor–that is, the person to whom you made the promise.

Reverse the situation and put yourself in the shoes of the creditor. If someone who made a promise to you realizes he will probably not deliver, what would he have to do to keep your trust?

I have asked this of thousands of professionals, and practically all of them replied along the following lines: “If my promisor thought that her commitment was at risk, I would like her to tell me right away. I would like her to come to me and,

1. Explain what changed and why it was unpredictable.

2. Inquire as to what problems this creates for me and what she could do to solve them.

3. Offer a new commitment that preserves efficiency and takes care of me.”

I then ask my clients if they have ever received an apology like this. “Never!” they usually complain. “The deadline comes and goes, I don’t get what I was promised, and the other person doesn’t show up. Worse yet, if I complain, he gets angry and blames me for not understanding that he had a problem—always caused by circumstances outside of his control!”

Righteous indignation feels good, but it blinds you to your own behavior. It is much easier to demand that others honor their word than to do it yourself. I then ask the same clients if they have ever given an apology like this. An embarrassing silence ensues.

Integrity As Competitive Advantage

One of my clients commissioned a survey asking microchip customers to name the most reliable supplier. The customers favored company X. A statistical analysis revealed something shocking: X’s delivery record wasn’t better than that of its competitors. Why did customers assess X as more reliable?

Every time an account manager discovered that she couldn’t deliver a product by a promised date, she immediately called the client to apologize and make alternative arrangements. Employees never hid a delay from their customers; instead, they were proactive. They assumed responsibility and did what they could to correct the situation. This policy reaped enormous rewards in terms of client loyalty.

Bone healing is a great metaphor here: If you take good care of a fracture, the bone becomes stronger than it was before. If you take good care of your promises, the relationship becomes stronger than it was before.

Integrity As Love

I was working in Zurich the week before my daughter Sophie’s sixteenth birthday. My client asked me to stay over the weekend to facilitate some difficult conversations. This meant I would miss my daughter’s party, a party that I had promised to attend. I committed to respond to my client by the next morning.

I called Sophie, pictured at left, and explained the situation. I told her that if she wanted me to come back, I would do as I had promised. But then I asked her if there were anything at all that she would want to do with me, that would be even better than having me at the party. “Oh yes,” she gloated, “Let’s go… skydiving!”

I stayed in Zurich with my client. Luckily, we couldn’t do the tandem jump because she had to be over eighteen. But we did take an acrobatic glider ride, which was only marginally better. Sophie squealed with delight for 45 minutes, while I screamed in terror for what felt to me like 4.5 hours.

It is unconscionable to behave with integrity toward adults but not toward children. Yet, how many times do we break our promises to our children (whom we love dearly) without apologizing properly?

The same dynamic applies in organizations. Do you know anybody who thinks that he needs to keep his promises toward his peers and managers, but who also thinks that he can be excused when he deals with subordinates?

Take A Look At Yourself

Have you made any promises that don’t satisfy the conditions of integrity?

Have you been postponing an apology you know you need to make?

Has someone let you down by not fulfilling her commitment and not apologizing with integrity?

In the first two cases, you know what to do. Write a comment below and let us know how it goes.

Let’s discuss the third case in my next post.

Fred Kofman, Ph.D. in Economics, is Professor of Leadership and Coaching at the Conscious Business Center of the University Francisco Marroquín and a faculty member ofLean In. He is the author of Conscious Business, How to Build Value Through Values (also available as an audio program).Follow Fred below to stay up-to-date with his articles and updates.

Photos: Artem Efimov/ (girl in cast); Fred Kofman (Sophie).