By Michel Hogan
I have a confession. I’m a podcast junkie and the ‘Waking Up’ podcast with Sam Harris is among the cornucopia of series I listen to. In one episode, Harris talked to author and NY Times columnist David Brooks about his book The Road to Character, and when they delved into promises their discussion struck a chord.
From the ‘Waking Up’ podcast episode On Becoming a Better Person*:
(David Brooks) … Self-improvement is part of being an adult, but being faithful to one’s promises may be a more important part; what you choose to promise faithfulness to and then how you execute on them … We make a lot of decisions where the act of making the decision changes who we are. And you can’t go back … It changes the self. And you have no data about who that future self is going to be and what it’s going to like, and so it makes big decisions hard to do.
Building on that point, Harris added that this flow (of promises) has to be regulated by a values system, so among the constant buffeting of thoughts, desires and whims, you will still have some sense of a map to guide you.
Brooks is talking about personal character, but why stop there. The character of an organisation is the collective character of the people in it. So using the points he and Harris are making can help us better understand the minefield of promises and how values can help navigate them.
Brooks’ observations capture the central struggle organisations have with promises: a lack of deliberation and consciousness in making them, and how being faithful to your promises (or not) will change the future, often rippling out in ways you can’t fathom at the time.
For all the talk about what the organisation wants to be in five years, remarkably little thought goes into the relationship between making promises today and that future self. And this is where values come to the rescue.
The real ones are the only ones that matter here, so if all you’ve got is a poster on the wall, stop reading now and figure them out. Because in addition to being ‘how we do things around here’, they will be a handy guide to help you navigate from today to that future self via your promises.
Put another way, if values are ‘how we do things around here’ then promises are the face of those things to the world.
Let’s say you make a promise about when you will finish something. Here’s where whim and desire raise their heads. You might say: “I need to get it to them as quickly as possible, so I’ll just say Tuesday, then it’s off my plate for the next few days.” And as Tuesday approaches you realise it’s going to be hard to keep that promise, there’s more to do than you thought. Do you let Tuesday go by and hope they don’t notice; make the call and beg more time; or drop everything else and hunker down to make the date?
None of these are good options. What if you’d employed your values when thinking about the promise before you made it? Let’s say you have a value of ‘open communications’ and used it to guide you to a conversation about when your work was needed and the effort required to get it done.
It is tough to examine every action and decision. The small ones are especially troublesome — we usually make time to examine the big ones. Which is why real values are so important. Embedded in your org identity and part of your character, they provide an operating system for making promises you can keep.
Brooks notes “you can’t go back” and the march of time is relentless. So rather than be mired in regret and blowback from broken promises, use some values discipline to make sure the promises you’re making hold up.
This article was first published on SmartCompany, and this updated version can be found in the upcoming book “The Unheroic Work.”
Michel Hogan is an Independent Brand Counsel advising organisations on the risk to their purpose and values of making promises they can’t keep.