Insight #4: People Value Promises

"Before you can say Yes to something you have to have the freedom to say No" is an aphorism I use to guide me whenever I am in a conversation for consequence.

Absent the freedom to decline, what value is a Yes?

The Nature of Promise Making

When I find myself saying "Yes honey I'll take care of that when I get home" I know I have no intention of keeping that promise and I check-in with myself - do I really mean to say No or, am I really saying Yes?

Here's what I learned... as the time to keep the promise approaches I am reminded whether the promise was made in good faith or not. For a bad faith promise my experience is one of anxiety followed by either relief (phew that got done) or embarrassment/defensiveness - all depending on whether the promise was kept or not.

For a good faith promise, the experience is totally different. Regardless of whether the promise is likely to be kept or not my experience is one of being responsible and count-on-able. As soon as I know that keeping the promise is at risk I find myself in action dealing with whatever the breakdown is - marshaling resources - figuring out ways to compensate - making requests and getting promises from others - changing the plan - always with an eye to having the promise kept or renegotiated when its plain that it cannot or ought not to be kept.

When the freedom to decline is missing

What is really going on when someone says Yes to something they clearly have no intention, capacity and/or competence to accept?

Something is happening - something is organizing the action - something in the culture is shaping the responses - something is making it ok to say Yes, when what's really meant is No or  I don't know, or I can't say yes for sure.

Whatever that thing is that makes it okay to say Yes, when what really needs to be said is No - that's the thing right there that creates the conditions for not thinking accurately to persist - even flourish - in plain sight.

It leads us to a cornerstone question...

Can we create an environment where not being able to keep the promises made occurs as intolerable - for both those that made the promise and for those who were counting on them being kept? 

Scaling Say/Do

When dealing with promises we may need to consider:

  • Say/Do at the Team Level
  • Say/Do at the Team of Teams Level
  • Say/Do at the Line of Business Level