A friendrecently returned to his parked car to find it had been sideswiped. Now, everytime he calls the insurance company, he hears a message saying: “Can’t takeyour call right now. Leave a message. All calls will be returned by the end ofthe day.”
So far,he’s called over a dozen times; his calls have been returned only twice.
Why wouldan insurance company have a voicemail message assuring callers that “all callswill be returned by the end of the day” and then return only 20% of the callsit committed to returning? Probably for the same reasons most of us promise “towrite back to your email on Monday” but don’t, or promise “to send out thatmemo by Friday” but don’t.
Why do any of us say we will dothings and then fail to do them?
Weovercommit ourselves. We don’t like todisappoint people, so we tell them what we think they want to hear. We feelpressure in the moment and don’t stop to consider how much pressure we’ll feellater. We don’t think through how much time things will actually take —and we don’t leave enough slack time in our days to handle the (inevitable)emergencies and delays.
When you fail to fulfilcommitments that you freely make, trust is not the result.
Never hascancelling, for example, been easier and less painful for us than it is in theage of the text message. We can cancel without ever having to speak with, muchless meet, someone. We can cancel five minutes ahead and without explanation.Just tack on an emoticon to our message, and we can convince ourselves thatit’s almost the same as if we’d met our obligation.
But thethought process still isn’t pain-free. We feel guilty about it. We waffle overwhat to do — and the indecision is draining. Finally, we cancel, and weundermine our confidence in ourselves. It reinforces our conviction that wecan’t do it all — that we can’t control our schedule, or even our effort.
There areconsequences for our personal lives, and there are certainly consequences inthe workplace. Keeping commitments is a sign of maturity. Employees who don’tfinish assignments, for instance, or finish them late or poorly, or arethemselves routinely late, miss meetings, and cancel appointments, are animposition on other team members and a liability to their employers.
Becausethese bad habits are nearly ubiquitous, they inevitably hitch a ride with someof us as we climb the ladder into leadership roles, where the workplacedysfunction they generate is magnified. It’s difficult to hold yoursubordinates accountable when you don’t hold yourself accountable. It’s hard totrust others when we know we can’t be counted on. How do we inspire commitment in those we lead when it’s obvious to themthat commitment is a negotiable principle for us? It’s impossible to be agood leader if we don’t govern ourselves.
If youreally mean no when you say yes, then say no in the first place. We are all inthe same boat — we have finite time and a seemingly infinite number ofworthwhile things to do with it. Commit yourself to not agreeing to do thingsunless you’re going to follow through. Ask for time to think things over ifyou’re unsure. Don’t overschedule yourself. If you’re truly overextended, youmay require a transition period to weed some things out; after that, once yousay yes to something, stick to the yes. If the commitment seemed like a goodidea at the time, it still is — even if thevalue is found not in the activity itself but in being trustworthy andfollowing through.
Adapted HBR Sept 2018Whitney Johnsom