Be Careful What You Promise

I just didn’t feel like it.

In what I thought was a conversation between just my wife and me, we discussed taking our daughter downtown for a horse carriage ride around Christmastime. You can tell a kid 1,000 times to not tease their sibling, to feed the dog, or to clean up their room and they can honestly look you in the eye and tell you they didn’t hear you. But in one small, semi-private conversation I had inadvertently triggered my daughter’s new found hearing superpower and promised to take her for a carriage ride that night. Evening came and she asked when we were going and when I broke the news that we weren’t, but that’d we’d go next weekend…waterworks!

Whether you are a CEO, CTO, Tech Lead, or manager of any type, everything you say is a promise.

“I’m going to move you over to Project A next week.”

“We’re really going to focus on TDD this year.”

“I will get back to you about tasks for next week.”

All of these examples are loaded with commitment: “I’m going to…”, “We’re really going to…”, “I will…”. These are promises. But how about these examples?

“Going to that conference would be a great idea.”

“We want to start doing 1-on-1s this quarter.”

“I’d love to get you on a fun little internal project.”

Not so much overt promises, right? Perhaps to you, but to the people that work for you and hear these statements, they are often received as commitments and expect that action will follow.

Promises come from everywhere. They are in your employee handbook, in your 1-on-1s, amongst the things you say at staff lunch, and even in the precedents you set for your organization. Sound like a lot of responsibility? Well, it is. These people trust you to help them succeed, grow, and be fulfilled in their career.

It’s imperative that you become highly aware of the things that leave your mouth or get jotted into an email. Consider if you could be making a promise and if you are, log it as a task to be completed. If you’re not, work to control when and how you communicate and make it clear that you can’t commit to what you just said, but it’s something you will consider. Save the “just dreaming” conversations for closed team leadership meetings, your spouse, or a friend, they’ll understand you are just playing something out in your head.

Just as my daughter was disappointed with a broken promise I didn’t even realize I had made to her, your employees will be disappointed just the same. The negative impact of broken promises cannot be overstated.