Leadership

The lost art of honoring commitments, or why you have to lower the boom

Toni Bowers is wondering why some people you work with treat the word "commitment" as just a suggestion.

A few years ago, I was sitting on the deck at my house and felt a golf ball whiz past my head. It seems that a couple of guys across the road from us were practicing their swings. Unfortunately, neither of them was aware that golf balls don't just disappear into the horizon. Newton's Law and plain ole common sense tell you that every action has a reaction.

When my husband drove up to their house to explain this ground-breaking bit of wisdom to them, they were surprised. We gave them the benefit of the doubt because they were teenagers.

Today, I find myself facing the action/reaction conundrum all over again. But this time I'm dealing with working adults. I am consistently surprised by the inability of some people in the working world to see how their actions (or the case I'm about to describe, inaction) can affect others down the line.

Let me say first that I believe the ability to follow up on what is promised is one of the most important qualities you can ask for in a person. To me, it is perhaps the most important mechanism behind a successful working team.

I don't know if the ability to honor one's commitments is a personality trait or an active choice. Either way, if you don't have it, you're going to have a short shelf life on my team.

I think it's arrogant to not consider or care about how inaction on your part is going to put more of a burden on others down the line. You delay your part in a project? That time has to be made up somewhere, usually on the back of someone who can be depended on to take up your slack.

I understand that sometimes things come up. But if you are consistently inconsistent, then your problem is not the unexpected constantly rearing its ugly head. The problem is that you have poor organizational skills and an inability to gauge your own bandwidth. And it's time for you to go. If you promise, deliver. If you can't deliver, don't promise. It's that simple.

I am very fortunate to be blessed with an internal staff of people who always follow through on what they promise. And this is often done while they deal with consistently erratic schedules brought on by some of their writers who miss their deadlines, leaving them to scramble around to fill in the holes.

I don't understand how a person cannot realize that an act of negligence like this eventually trickles down to someone else's shoulders. More often than not, the editor isn't even given the courtesy of an apology.

I also don't understand how someone who has gone to the trouble of securing work can be so blasé about actually doing it.

Anyone else feel as strongly as I do about honoring commitments? Or are empty promises just a necessary business evil? Is accountability a thing of the past?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

23 comments
kybelboy
kybelboy

This is for info@... I am in sales and consider a commitment a promise. On the other hand "customers" have absolutely no regard for my time or their promises. It seems that 75% of their appointments they have no intention of keeping and you don't even get a courtesy call saying they have to cancel. I'd be willing to bet info@...has blown off an appointment like that with a salesperson and didn't even have a tinge of guilt. What goes around comes around!

william.long
william.long

I read Toni's comments and I keep visualizing a particular person I am currently dealing with in my home owner association. This person has continually been remiss about meeting his committments. To make matters worse, when asked if he needed help, he would say that he simply needed more time -- time and time again. Now, our homeowners association is getting complaints and the board is at wits end. I don't know if this is a generational thing, an attention-deficit problem, or a lack of character. But, Toni is right. Other people's inaction often must be made up by the pain and hyperaction of those victimized by those who do not honor their commitments.

Gulta
Gulta

You touched the root cause of the problem at the beginning of your post - it's a cultural deficiency - people are not held accountable for their actions; there are no implications if they don't do the right thing. That all starts from infancy, parents fix everything the child brakes, they find excuses for their bad behavior, keep rewarding them even when there is no reason to do so, etc... Same at work - recent statistics show that it takes 12 YEARS to manage out a poor performer. Why the hell don't they get shown the door after the 1st year? Lax management, like lax parenting, means that nothing will be done about the bad behaviors or performance so people don't need to worry about consequences.

Jtempys
Jtempys

Is pretty ripe with arrogance and mud slinging. You say Your whole team is committment savy but here you are saying people dont honor committments. What is really going on here? Sounds like some buck passing, poop rolls down hill as they say.

Datacommguy
Datacommguy

I agree with everything you said, Toni, but I'd bet that the first thing which came to mind in 99% of the people reading it was promises involving your performance made by someone else who didn't have a clue why there was no way on God's green earth that what he/she was commiting to could be done by an arbitrary deadline set by yet another ignorant soul who didn't have a clue about the scope and resourses needed. In some cases, it's pure ignorance. It may simply be a 'standard' case of someone telling a manager what they think he/she wants to hear Or worse, it leads to outright falsehoods passed up the line to deflect blame. What immediately came to my mind was several instances of projects with highly visible deadlines where the demands and specifications were constantly changing. And after weeks of long nights and weekends, my boss telling several of us that the parts we could get done by the deadline were the best we could do and he'd clear it with the CIO. Ten minutes later, I happened to hear him tell the CIO that we were not going to make the deadline because so-and-so and so-and-so just couldn't be depended on to get the work done. Can't say I miss that place...

info
info

...and I believe it's called, 'Sales'.

maj37
maj37

I agree with this statement in general but would add two caveats. 1) Often the promise wasn't made by the person expected to deliver in this case what can they do? 2) Often someone says they will try but can't make any promises, but the person still hears it as a promise, again what can they do? What mdwalls says about the team's credibility is correct, but if the team leader committed to things that were not achievable without input from the team or ignoring input from the team then it is the team leader's responsibility to modify the promise with the customer.

DOSlover
DOSlover

Just a week ago one of the people working for me (rotates week on, week off) received an email advising of a limited power outage. As he wasn't going to be on duty when the power outage occurred he didn't tell anyone. When he returned after a week break I told him to acknowledge receipt of formal disciplinary action. Fortunately his counterpart is dedicated and diligent and read the previous weeks email messages and advised everyone in time to take remedial action. It could have been damaging to us, the client and general progress on the site, to the point of causing an accident. People unwilling to accept their responsibilities soon discover the defect if they work for me!

Bob B.
Bob B.

Thank You Toni, I share your frustration. I am always absolutely astounded when people fail to do the work they are being paid to do. It is extremely painful having to continually contact people to ask them when they will be able to answer your questions or finish an assigned task. The thing that absolutely sends me over the top are people who can't even take the time to answer with a quick e-mail or phone call to let me know why they have not been able to deliver the goods on time. If they can at least offer an explanation as to why they are behind schedule, I can maybe adjust mine and maybe even cover for them. I'm not a tyrant but when I take a hit on my appraisal because these inconsiderate SOB's are the reason why my stuff is late it just ticks me off. After all, that appraisal affects my opportunity for salary increases or promotions which also directly impacts the size of any bonuses or 401K contributions my employer offers which ultimately translates into messing with my family and that just ain???t cool!

dbobke
dbobke

Ultimately, it is the manager's responsibility to hold their staff accountable to promises. Regular feedback and one-on-ones with your team provides the construct for making this happen.

mdwalls
mdwalls

who made the committment, if the customer/organization accepted it you are stuck with it. You may be able to renegotiate it or get it overridden, but ultimately your credibility is on the line. Within the team or on behalf of the team, each of us lives on our professional reputation, which is a combination of personal and team. Very seldom have I ever heard "you're OK, but that project team stunk!"

Menace65
Menace65

Finally, the non-committal cog of our team was shown the door. The difference in morale was immediate. To remove the one person who was "consistently inconsistent", who was also the face of IT in the field, basically lifted what was a dark cloud over all of us. I blame management for keeping him because he was liked by his manager, which was why his inabilities and incompetence were overlooked. There are still issues that come up (there is always going to be fallout even after the fact) when we basically curse his name...but then handle the issue like the professionals we are.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Mind you it's a moot point if it wasn't me that committed me to doing it, isn't it....

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

I also feel strongly that ongoing communication is absolutely necessary so that if a commitment can't be met, it's not a last minute surprise. I will say if folks are consistently inconsistent there may be an external management component. Sometimes leaders ask folks to go above and beyond and don't take input.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Us? Our parents and the way they brought us up. It didn't start last generation (when ever the heck that was). It's not being held acountable for your actions that matters. It's holding yourself accountable for your actions, one is rooted in self respect, the other fear..... That can only be taught by example, and how many of those are about....

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

perception of it. Do as I say, not as I do..... They have all the reasons for not following through on their committments, we are left with mere excuses.... RHIP...

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

by what people think they are paying me to do, and why they don't know I can't do it, because they won't set up the required environment to do it. Assigned them a task, is not necessarily them committing to do it, is it? As for not telling you they can't, now there I agree, but I've met a whole load of committed managers who don't want to hear that. I still tell them of course, but I'm an irritating c**t. :p

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

achievable, then their reputation with you is in the mud. It might be a matter of self interest to rescue yourself from their error, because people associate you with this idiot, but if they see that as absolution, kick them out the door immediately, because they'll do it again...

Gulta
Gulta

You are right, Tony. This did not come about over night. It slipped a little at a time over 3-4 generations. Leading by example did happen - but it was the wrong example to follow :D People realize too late that they should have taught others how to fish, rather than serving them a ready meal. It is not irreversible though - setting the right example and ensuring there are rewards for good performance and reprcussions for poor one makes it possible to foster and nurture high culture.

santeewelding
santeewelding

He may have spread his genes far and wide, but personal example ended with him. Learning by correspondence course, which all have since, isn't quite the same.

toni.bowers_b
toni.bowers_b

Why in the world could you assume that what I said was in regard to my assigning arbitrary deadlines on behalf of someone without them knowing it? I was talking about contributors who pitch a topic, get the go-ahead, ask when you want it, then don't turn it in on the day you specified. I'm very sorry you had some crappy bosses in your life but don't let that chip on your shoulder color everything you see and hear.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

to commit without knowing, or at least that's the way they came across. In my job all deadlines are arbritary. How abritary is obviously a concern in terms of efficient management (either me of my ever growing workload, or my manager of me), but not the real issue. A crappy boss isn't one who commits me, a crappy boss is one that doesn't realise that they've given me several conflicting goals, no help in resoving them (which is something I don't have the authority or knowledge to do), and then blames me for failing to honour my committments, as in the ones they've committe me to. Ie one who in committing me hasn't committed themself.... It's not my and yours, it's ours. We both know they are about, and if your management blog isn't about addressing that, what is the point of it? I took it as simple omission from your piece, was that an error? The only thing I can do, is tell them that the committment is not going to be honoured because, and give them enough time to adress that before WE end up late. If you have the sort of screw up who doesnt do this and makes you look like an arse in public, get rid of them. It won't be Mr Negative me, it will be that positive don't rock the boat arse who keeps telling you what they think you want to hear. As opposed to what you need to.... I'm sorry you've had to put up with crappy people like that, but I aren't and never will be one of them. So all the assumptions are yours....

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