A century ago, a promise and a handshake was as good as a legally binding agreement. Nothing was stronger than saying, “You have my word.” There was a sacred quality to one’s word that was not taken as lightly as it is today. Back then breaking a promise was no small transgression. Today, talk is cheap and a promise is not necessarily a promise. We often think ethics has to do with actions but it’s also about words.
Business is about keeping promises. “I’ll call you tomorrow” or “The project will be done by next Friday.” They are personal assurances that you will do something and it is backed up by your word and trustworthiness. A promise is only as credible as the person giving it.
In a busy workday you might make dozens of promises, from the trivial to the critical. In the hustle and bustle of a jam-packed day some promises are kept and others are let go. But hold on…you don’t get off that easily. Saying you will call someone back and not doing it has an ethical dimension to it. Falsely assuring a customer that the product will be there by Thursday is wrong. Saying one thing and doing another is lying. For those who have a full schedule and a phone that never stops ringing, making false promises may not seem like lying but rather “goal setting” or making a good effort. Make no mistake, this is not an ethical way to communicate and will come back to bite in the future.
The bottom line is this, you need to have the highest regard for ethical, honest communication in the workplace. No excuses or backpedaling, but a grounded principle that what comes out of your mouth is what you really mean. Your trust in the person behind the business transaction may often be more important than the money involved. There’s nothing more important to your success than this well-known motto, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” It’s ethical, honest, and the right thing to do.
If you’ve made a promise that didn’t pan out, you may ask yourself, “How did I get myself into this mess and what can I do to get out of it?”
First, if you’ve made a habit of telling people what they want to hear, you need to break it. It’s not realistic and will get you in trouble. Take the issue seriously, call it lying, and resolve that you will not do it. Like any other bad habit it may be hard to break, so post reminders about what you will say around your desk, write down your goals, or do something to remind yourself every day.
Next, prepare yourself by rehearsing what you will say when you have the urge to tell the other party what he or she wants to hear. Say the phrase, “To be honest…” before you start explaining circumstances and tell it straight. If there is any uncertainty, be up-front about it.
The key to ethical communication is clarity. Whatever the reason, you need to be as clear as possible with the words that leave your lips. Remember that your words have meaning. People take what you say at face value. Being clear in what you say doesn’t just make you look more intelligent and in tune with the situation. By laying the cards on the table and you’ve protected yourself in the future as well.
When it comes to the aftermath of a failed promise, honesty works best every time it’s tried. You communicate volumes about your ethical character by how you respond after you’ve blown it. There is a lot of power in an apology, a willingness to take responsibility, and in making things right. Even in the little things such as forgetting to return a call or show up for a meeting, apologize without excuses. If you feel the urge to start making excuses, bite your lip and learn to take whatever comes.
Imagine if you were transported to the past and found yourself standing in a field negotiating a land swap or tool sale. Would a handshake and your word count for much? Would your words be as trustworthy as today’s legally binding, notarized agreements? Luckily, breaking promises may not get you run out of town on a rail, but it comes close.