How do you make a commitment that has staying power when you know that your promises are subject to the risks of change and uncertainties?
We all respond differently when faced with many requests for our time and actions. One of my clients strives for perfection, so he may put things off, which leaves him with lots of items pending, niggling away at his energy. Another will try her best to accommodate, but feel overwhelmed and unacknowledged for her efforts. My own response too often is to say yes, but then feel either proud of my capacity or resentful that I’m working so hard!
Understanding Commitments—Then and Now
Taking on and keeping our promises is not always as simple as it looks. And what we understand as commitment and how we approach it can develop over time. In our education years and first jobs, we often understand commitment as making a choice of action, or personal allegiance to a group, cause or person. We act our commitment by sticking with things when they are tough, staying loyal to a promise, or pushing ourselves when no one is watching us. Our personal integrity is about remaining on target to what we said we would do. As individuals, this understanding and behaviour helps us move beyond an implicit “all about me” attitude, to find something bigger, to stretch ourselves. You can find lots of such slogans in a simple Google search!
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And yet what is implied in this kind of commitment?
- That our context won’t change much from the time we made our original commitment.
- That if we find ourselves falling behind in our commitments, the “fault” is in ourselves, or in others, or in the ever present scapegoat “them”.
With more experience or bigger jobs, we come to realize that things are always changing. The world is volatile, uncertain and ambiguous. Many of us have become cynical about political or business leaders who seem to make empty promises, or who explain away their failures by pointing fingers at others or changing circumstances. How do we become the kind of leader who can make effective commitments in a world full of risk?
Making Promises That Are Subject to Risk
Does it even make any sense to make commitments when we know that so much is uncertain? Wouldn’t a simple, “I’ll try” or “It all depends” actually be more realistic? Yet of course, we can’t and don’t live like this. Our sense of self-worth would diminish, our friends would feel subject to our whims and our work colleagues couldn’t count on us. We live in a world of global shipments, international transactions, where most things run on a timely basis. Clearly a lot of commitments are kept a lot of the time.
So how can we make and fulfill promises in a way that includes personal effort and also acknowledges the conditions of uncertainty? How do we accomplish goals, increase trust in our relationships and maintain our personal integrity when we make promises that are subject to risk? One way is by surfacing and collaboratively talking about the context, assumptions and uncertainties that are present in any commitment.*
Coaching Tips for Impeccable Promises
Making promises impeccably doesn’t guarantee their outcome. It does mean a process and conversations that will;
- determine who is accountable to deliver what, by when
- generate clear information, recognizable and acceptable by all
- build mutual trust in our relationships
There are two parts to making an impeccable promise. The first part – the one we typically understand – is making a commitment to a stated request. The second part follows from the first; do you as the promiser understand fully what is being asked of you, have the ability to fulfill it and are sincere in your intention to do so? In practice, what does this mean? Usually, clarifying things through conversation. When someone asks you to commit to an action, what can you ask yourself – or what can you ask them?
- have I been clearly asked to do something, or is this just wishing out loud?
- is this something I want to do?
- do I have the skills and resources to do this?
- what are the standards or requirements here?
- am I convinced that others I rely on will deliver for me?
- am I willing to be held accountable for anticipating potential breakdowns, or for communicating unanticipated breakdowns? (aka… shit happens!)
And here are some ways you can respond to a request, after having the dialogue you think appropriate.
- Yes, I can commit
- No, I can’t commit, but I can try
- I need further clarification (from you, from others on whom I depend)
- I accept conditionally. I can do xx if yy happens. Would that work?
- Let me make a counter offer. I cannot do xx by yy but I can do A by B. Would that work?
Making a commitment in this manner is thoughtful, collaborative and generates new and diverse information. It may take a bit more time than a simple yes-no-maybe, but it can go a long way toward preventing future problems. It reduces miscommunication, highlights important areas of uncertainty, increases resilience and generates mutual buy-in to goals. Worth the effort! Simple once you get the hang of it!
* Fred Kofman, Conscious Business, Sounds True, 2006