We make far too many casual promises. And we speak with little or no regard for carrying out the words we communicate. You put your integrity in the balance every time you commit. Others judge the fabric of your character by whether you keep your commitments and follow through on them in a timely manner. Casual promises and broken commitments are the quickest way to undermine your credibility.
You cannot be 100% accountable if you do not honor your commitments and behave in a way that is consistent with your words. Your relationship to commitments—both big and small—defines your character and decides your fate. It determines the sustainability of your committed partnerships. Leaders eventually fail when they leave a trail of broken promises and diminish their word to the point where they are no longer trusted.
When it comes to assessing leadership effectiveness, there are only two legitimate measures: the business results you produce and how others respond to your leadership. Your effectiveness as a leader is based on the extent to which others perceive you as credible and trustworthy, which, in turn, is what inspires confidence and generates results.
Agreements, commitments, promises, pledges, and pacts—call them anything you want. When you say the words “I will,” you are promising something to someone. The words commitment, promise, and agreement are pledges to do something. Respecting your word and honoring your commitments are expressions of your integrity and values. When your word means something, you can create anything. People whose word is respected are perceived as trustworthy, reliable, and credible. It takes strength of character to consistently demonstrate that your word is your bond.
Credibility is a multidimensional construct that consists of your expertise and your trustworthiness. If you are credible, people believe the truthfulness and correctness of what you say. Credibility is based on trust: can others count on you to do what you say you are going to do? You may be the best in your field with regard to knowledge and proficiency, but if you avoid making commitments or treat commitments casually, people will not trust you. When you do not keep your word in all matters, you destroy confidence. Your credibility at all levels in the organization is determined by how you relate to commitments. All people have is your word. What else is there?
A leader’s credibility requires living by his or her word. If you are of the misguided opinion that it is acceptable to break small commitments as long as you keep the big ones, you are heading for a huge fall—a fall in credibility. You might classify “I’ll call you tomorrow” as a small commitment that is not worthy of worry or angst should you neglect to follow through. But your thinking is flawed. It does not matter how you think your broken commitments will impact others. The only relevant data is the experience others have when you break your commitments.
Use any classification system you want, but when you separate important commitments from the not-so-important ones, you are creating a false dichotomy. When you say “Yes, I will do this,” you have committed. Your words carry weight, and you lose credibility each time you break or irresponsibly revoke a promise. The people around you tally commitments the same way one maintains a debit or credit ledger.
When you break a commitment, others put a check mark in the debit column. When you keep a commitment, they put a check mark in the credit column. From the perspective of others, you are either a leader who keeps his or her word or one who does not. There is no gray area. The question you must answer is “Do you have the courage to live by your word, and to recover quickly and responsibly when you do not?”
Great leaders cut through the nonsense and do not tolerate disingenuous behavior, nor do they accept “reasonable” excuses as a substitute for business results. When leaders hold others accountable for their commitments and performance, not for activities and effort, they hold people to a higher standard and most will change their behavior.
When leaders change the rules of the game and raise the bar on how people are expected to behave, a few may leave the organization, but the overwhelming majority will stay and become passionately engaged. People want to do their best, and tolerating poor behavior in some lowers the standard for everyone.
Words are actions, and we use the words accountability, integrity, and commitment as if we are sprinkling sugar on cereal, adding a splash of flavor with no real substance. The words that represent our highest ideals and values no longer have potency. Without recognizing it, we accept a low standard of behavior that undermines business results.
In a culture of accountability, your word is your bond. Individuals and teams are caretakers of their promises, and they do not give or take commitments lightly. They treat commitments with respect and do not let circumstances or challenges stop them.
Your relationship to the words that come out of your mouth determines the extent of your power. If talk is cheap, and words are empty and hollow, then committing is not a powerful action. On the other hand, when commitments are kept or responsibly revoked, they are the linchpins for producing business results and the keys to greatness.
A person who keeps his or her agreements, commitments, and promises without excuses is living 100% accountability. Yet how many times have you been late to a meeting and dismissed it due to traffic or forgetfulness or blamed it on another meeting that went longer than expected? How much integrity do you have in keeping your word to yourself and others? As a leader, you are always sending a message to others. When you habitually break your commitments, you are saying “You are not important. Circumstances dictate my behavior.” There are legitimate urgent circumstances that justify breaking or altering a commitment. However, when circumstances determine your behavior daily, others will not trust your leadership.