Keeping Your Word
When promises are missing or unclear, there is unproductive action and dissatisfaction
What is commitment?
In this book, I use the words ‘commitment’, ‘agreement’, and ‘promise’ interchangeably. Certain other discourses may create a distinction in these words – for example, commitment may mean the intention, while the promise itself may mean a guarantee towards a specific outcome. However, for the purposes of this book – they mean the same. Hence, commitment, when used in this book means the ‘act’ and not a confirmation of intention.
A promise is one kind of a declarative act that we make which internally organizes us to be in action for the sake of producing a specific outcome. It is also an act that we make externally and socially that produces an interpretation in others of what we will produce as outcomes of our actions. Promises are acts of coordination between people. In making and managing promises, we are looking for the promise of an eventual future consequence that is of value for some customer (the person to whom you make the promise). We are not looking for a promise of engaging in some activity in which the result is not articulated or clear (unless the promise is itself to engage in an activity and not of a specific result).
What is fundamental for any promise is for the performer (the person who makes the promise) to produce a shared interpretation of the commitment with the customer (the person you make the promise to); and, to produce the assessment that this is a sincere and authentic commitment, and that the performer will act towards fulfilling their promise.
Promise is taking a stand that you are responsible for the outcome.
That is, you take the posture that the outcome can be produced and that you will produce the outcome. This means you do not act to ‘do the best you can’ (unless this is what you promised), or to ‘do what is appropriate and see what happens’ or ‘do what you thought should do the trick’ and or use breakdowns as excuses for non-fulfilment.
What is a team?
A team is a group of people with a shared promise. A team exists to make a bigger promise that one person alone can fulfil.
What is an organization?
An organization can be understood as a network of commitments generated and maintained in a network of conversations to fulfil bigger commitments. ‘Bigger commitments’ in this context means commitments that individuals do not have the capacity to fulfil on their own, and hence group(s) of people come together to fulfil them.
What is action?
Action is taking care of what you care about. If you are not doing so, you are only doing tasks, not taking action. In the world of generative leadership, we interpret action not as some disembodied activity that we have to organize ‘out there’, but rather as generated by acts of commitments by people who care about some concern.
If you really get the depth of this distinction, it will transform the way you take action. For me, when I am doing something (generally, people would interpret I am in action) – I ask myself, ‘What care am I taking care of with this doingness?’ If my response is that this doingness is inside of some or the other care and commitment of mine, then I assess that I am in action – otherwise I am indulging in meaningless activity.
To act is to take care. Taking care is the fundamental aspect of action that brings meaning, value and satisfaction.
What is a task?
A task is that which consumes human time and energy, but which is articulated by a description of what is being done. In other words, the distinction between a task and an action is that actions are inside of cares and commitments, while tasks are activities that take up time, and yet do not move forward a certain fulfilment of a promise.
Pause for Reflection
How much time of your day is spent in action (activities that are inside of your care and commitments) as against time that you spend on tasks (meaningless activity that does not move forward your cares and commitments)?
Distinguishing Missing Care and Missing Commitment
Care is the energy that brings meaning and importance in our lives; and it is through commitments that we take actions, thereby taking care of what we care about. We then need to, as a regular practice, distinguish ‘for the sake of what commitment’ we are taking this action.
This book began with the first chapter on ‘Care’. Chances are by now you would have distinguished what your cares are, and those of your co-workers. If that is the case, it’s time for you to distinguish your commitments inside each of these cares, and invite your co-workers to distinguish their commitments.
I did some intensive work for a global $15-billion group. I was invited by the CEO of its Indian office to conduct a series of seminars for all their employees in the sales and marketing team. Over tens of seminar-type conversations, I interacted with their staff – over 800 employees – right from the CEO down to the sales executives. The entire organization was focused on their commitment to increasing market share. On the face of it, this seemed pretty straightforward.
However, this was an interesting time in the industry – the industry size had declined by about 20 per cent in the previous two years, and the sales and marketing team had complained that the sales target in a declining industry was demotivating them, and hence the management of this organization had decided to change the target from a sales target to a market-share target. There was also a sales target, but as per the teams I interacted with, the market-share target was the one they were going by.
All teams did not meet their sales targets, and only a handful met their market-share targets. In my conversations with them, I heard many reasons (reasons are assessments that you believe in – but they are still only that – assessments) for not having met their targets.
Promises Instead of Targets
In my interactions with organizations, I regularly ask people: Is this a target, or is this your promise? And pat comes a response: ‘Oh, it’s a target, I haven’t made this promise.’ The way a target is interpreted by many people that I have interacted with is, ‘This is something that I need to go for, but if I don’t achieve it, it’s okay’. However, a promise is interpreted by these people as ‘this is my commitment and I have to achieve this’.
Several organizations that I have worked with, and continue to work with, have stopped using targets. They now have decided to get promises of results from their employees.
This is not just a matter of semantics. This is a matter of how you show up to work every morning. If you must achieve promises, chances are, employees are a lot more connected to taking action that helps them inch closer to achieving their promise. What is also important to state here is that I have met many people for whom there is no difference in the words ‘target’ and ‘promise’. For them, their target is their promise. However, on the other hand, I have interacted with many people in organizations for whom a target is something that would be nice to achieve, and a promise would be something that they need to achieve.
In the work of generative leadership, a target is a request by the manager to their co-worker. This request can be declined. It is in the manager’s interest to recognize whether or not their co-worker has accepted the request and given a trustworthy promise to the manager. Often, co-workers accept ‘targets’ on the face of it, because their assessment is that they cannot decline the target assigned by the manager. When the performer accepts the target, and makes a trustworthy promise, that’s when the manager can assess that the target-promise will be met.
The world operates on promises. Promises are what shapes what people do. It also shapes what customers expect in outcomes.
When promises are missing or unclear, there is unproductive action and dissatisfaction. Individuals make promises to teams, teams to organizations, organizations to clients; clients to their clients; and so forth. This cycle breaks if you break a commitment. Unfortunately, a lot of people have not created an empowering context for why they do what they do. And because of this, they think it is okay to miss promises. This is where the manager or the leader comes in, and get their teams to recognize the promises of the team, and that of individuals within the team, and the impact of promises not kept.
A Decline is a Commitment
It is interesting in how many organizations, managers and leaders tell their team members what they need done, and presume that by simply stating so, it becomes the commitment of the other to do what has been requested. The general manager of the maker of a luxury cars once mentioned to me that in his organization, it is he who asks his team to tell him what annual target they should aim to achieve.
Interestingly, when speaking to his team, they said that the general manager gave the team their annual targets and asked them: ‘Guys, is this target reasonable? If not, you need to tell me now.’ And according to the team members, this was said in a manner and tone such that the general manager was not going to be negotiable. So, according to the general manager, in effect, he had a commitment from his team for a target.
Was this commitment a trustworthy commitment?
Not in my assessment. I say this based on my interactions with the general manager and his team. While I am writing this chapter, the annual financial year is not over yet – however, what is important to note is that this team has not even met the targets for the first three quarters.
I am not surprised.
Here’s my perspective – when someone declines a target that you want him to take on – what that person is intrinsically saying is that he cares for the relationship and does not want to let you down; and that he or she does not have the capacity, competence, or the intention to do what you want him or her to do.
As a manager and a leader, to gain authority with your team, the first thing you need to do is make commitments that you will live up to. If you think you cannot live up to a commitment, politely decline. My coach Bob Dunham tells me, ‘A decline is a commitment that I will not do what you have requested. It’s a way of saying I respect you and do not want to let you down. Perhaps you can make a request to another person who has the intention, capacity or competence to fulfil your request. If I say yes and know that I cannot fulfil a promise, I am creating the eventual breakdown, dissatisfaction and consequences of the lack of fulfilment of the outcome’.