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Francis Wade Keeping business promises a waning culture

You can vaguely recall a time long ago when keeping promises in business used to be important. But today, every new circumstance becomes a reason to break a commitment.

You observe this phenomenon but aren’t satisfied, even if you sometimes benefit when someone lets you off the hook. There’s a good explanation. A corporate culture in which one’s word means little or nothing is terminally bad for the bottom line.

The era of ‘I’ll do it because I said I would’ is gone. Today, these words are rarely uttered.

Instead, we operate in a world that places the highest value on authentic, inner emotions. We have learned to appreciate transparency and the courage it takes to share feelings. In business, such traits help to build trust at a personal level.

But there’s a different kind of trust that is also important. It has more to do with reliability, integrity, and “trustworthiness”. For example, a bridge from your childhood days could be a place you enjoy visiting. However, actually driving across it is another matter if the structure has deteriorated.

It’s all related to promise-making.

An organisation that maintains and certifies bridges will promise a safe experience. But they aren’t alone. Every company has standards that their audience depends on.

Conversely, at the individual level, you want employees to do stuff just because they said they would. Why? If they stay true to their word, the organisation operates effectively.

But this character element is increasingly hard to find. And it’s hardly spoken about. Yet we all know people who demonstrate impeccable reliability.

They show up on time. They almost never forget a promise. They treat lapses as grave errors in execution, so they immediately apologise and put structures in place to make sure the issue doesn’t recur.

Where does that come from? Unlike most, they take their word seriously. As if it matters.

However, they may not be ‘nice’ people. Instead, they probably insist on holding others around them to a similar high standard. This can make them annoying. Sadly, they mistakenly believe that everyone is doing their best to be true to their word.

They are wrong. Although he once held the highest office in his country, Donald Trump is frequently referred to as someone who lies without bad consequences. His unfulfilled promises seem to increase his popularity, garner more ‘likes’, and attract more followers.

There are reasons not to follow his lead.

With few exceptions, people aren’t sociopaths. Their concern extends to others and they are mindful of their impact on them.

In your organisation, it’s critical to develop a sensitivity for broken promises at both the individual and corporate level. Support staff in understanding and sensing the effects of their own unkept obligations on all those affected. Intervene with those who are unable to grow this ability.

When you habitually act as if your word doesn’t matter, you undermine your own personal power. Circumstances determine your fate, and you unwittingly surrender to their random occurrence.

Over time, you forget what it’s like to be a strong individual. Consequently, when things don’t work out, your only option is to be powerless. Ultimately, this could affect your mental health.

If you have ever been around a bitter person, you may have noticed this effect. It’s crucial to put the conviction of ‘doing what I said I would do’ at the top.

Over time, if uncaring employees are promoted up the ranks, they enforce a dysfunctional service culture. Why?

It takes energy to put others’ welfare before your own. The challenge is that customers are strangers.

As such, in most organisations, service levels are circumstantial. They depend on whether a customer catches the right person – for example, an old friend from high school – on the right day, at the right moment.

But in general, mediocre companies always have a reason or excuse to break their promises, big and small. When there’s no trustworthiness, customers must overcome tremendous friction to get anything done. In desperation, some even breach the law.

By contrast, firms that take great care of their clients put their welfare first. To do so, they go to extraordinary lengths. For them, service is a matter of personal and collective integrity – an element of character worth creating and defending at all costs.

While it’s hard to find people able to deliver at this high level, the cost to attract them is far outweighed by the benefit that customers experience.

In 2023, only rare organisations can be trusted to consistently do what they say they will do, but they quickly become memorable. They have made the effort to build an internal culture of integrity, which is a foundation of excellent service to the public.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity. To search past columns on productivity, strategy and business processes, or give feedback, email:

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