Promises play an indispensable part in how value accrues in your brand result. Yet despite that, too little thought gets applied to what’s going on within the promise itself.
Have you ever found yourself trapped under an avalanche of cavalier promises, with people playing fast and loose with the content. And by promising too much, they set off a cascade of expectations and obligations well ahead of any consequences.
When a promise gets made, it generally follows that it ought to happen, and because it ought to happen, it can. Academic Julia Driver, in her essay entitled “Promising too much”, takes aim at the idea of “ought means can”:1
“Off-hand, it seems obvious that, of course, some people make promises that can’t be kept. But this is puzzling, if we also think that promises entail obligations, and we buy into the “ought” implies can” principle. My claim will be that “ought” does not imply “can”…”2
Once a person makes a promise, I expect they ought to keep it. However, does that mean they can keep it? The litany of broken promises suggests it isn’t a guarantee they will.
The article ‘Toxic Promises’ examines when they get made without intending to keeping them. Click here
For example, B promises C to do x. At this point, B has created an expectation with C of x happening and has an obligation to C to do x. What is less clear is whether B can do x. B may hope they can, fully intend to, try and still fail.
The only way out of the promise is if ‘promisee’ C releases B from their obligation to do x – an attribute of promising which gets short-shift by organisations.
Outside of a release by C, breaking the promise means B still owes C something:
- B makes a promise to C to do x.
- Fails to do x
- Is not released by C from the promise to x
- B has an outstanding debt to C for x
When ought and can diverge, interpreting a promise as a non-negotiable obligation ignores the role C plays in managing what is owed by B.
For example, B promises C on Monday that he will get her product data on Thursday for an upcoming sales pitch. C lets him know that the pitch got cancelled, and she doesn’t need the data anymore. C has released B from their promise and any obligation.
Alternatively, on Wednesday, B realises he won’t have the data for Thursday and asks C if he can get it to her on Friday instead, and C agrees. B has created new terms for the promise to C and still has the obligation.
In both cases, as promisee, C is the only one who could alter the promise’s terms. If B instead ignores his obligation and doesn’t deliver the product data on Thursday, he has broken his promise and now has a debt to C.
That physical debt may be easy to fulfil by getting C the information at a later date. The moral debt is more difficult to remedy. And next time B promises something to C, she may seek a guarantee or avoid B altogether and go to another person she still trusts.
Once B made the promise, C had the right to expect that she ought to keep it. However, ought doesn’t always mean can.
Versions of this example play out across organisations big and small, eroding confidence and weakening the bonds which allow it to function. And compounding each time a promise gets carelessly and cavalierly made.
However, if we stop assuming “ought means can”, we make space for a more dynamic approach where, with agreement on both sides, the obligation and the terms can change without breaking the promise.
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1. Promises, Obligations, and Abilities, Driver 1983
2. Promising Too Much, Driver, Promises and Agreements, p184