People typically agree that keeping your promises is always the ‘right’ thing to do. However, everyone falls short of this in practice. I will recommend to you what I recommend to my clients who work across cultures — keep your promises to everyone 100% of the time to build trust. I can already hear you objecting, as my clients often do: “But Sherwood, you are being unrealistic. In spite of my best intentions, there are simply times that it is not possible to keep a promise.” When clients say that, I ask them to give me examples of when it is okay to break their promise. I have a long list of such situations that I have collected over the years. Here are just a few:
Why Do You Break Promises?
My intent is not to criticize you or my clients for not keeping promises. Instead, I want to point out that one of the intercultural blind spots shared by all cultures is that there is one standard we apply to ourselves and a different standard that we apply to others. On the one hand, we sincerely believe that we are good at keeping our promises. On the other hand, we are convinced that others are constantly disappointing us by not keeping theirs. But all of us, from any culture, constantly break our promises for all kinds of reasons which to us are justifiable. So clearly everyone needs practice.
There are two things to practice here. One is to minimize the number of times you break your promises. Aim for 100% perfection; even if you never achieve that, trying will make you more accountable for what the ‘real’ reasons to break a promise are, and which ones don’t count.
A second thing to practice is to be more accepting of others when they break their promises. I encourage you to not even request a reason when someone breaks a promise to you. What practical purpose do reasons serve? Do they change our behavior? No. Do they really excuse our breach of a promise? No again. Rather than reasons, I recommend offering remedial action when you break a promise. Here is what I mean by that:
For example, you could write a letter or email of apology, and include a free company product or service as compensation for any inconvenience it has caused your colleague or client. Of course, offering compensation does not mean that the other person is not justified in being disappointed or angry. Rather, the offer is simply a sincere intent to compensate for any damages, however minor, to the other person. I recommend this approach even if you are renegotiating to fulfill the promise at a future date. Do not expect people to be understanding or forgiving. They may be, but you simply make things worse by getting angry at people that you broke a promise to when they won’t forgive you.
On the other hand, if someone breaks a promise to you, then practice being understanding and forgiving. Isn’t that what you expect in the same situation? Then why not give that freely to others?
How You Deal with Promises Impacts on Your Identity
So why is all this important? Because the identity you build in the world of business is largely constructed on how much others can count on you to do what we say you will do. And while no one can force you to keep your promises, you can develop a rigor about keeping promises that few people possess. You can also develop an acceptance of broken promises that is equally rare.
A promises is the most powerful exchange of words there is. Everything in our world has at its root a promise made and kept. Imagine if everyone kept their promises all the time. While that sounds like an unattainable vision, the amount of time and resources we would save, and the volatile emotions and mistrust we would eliminate, would be extraordinary. Each of us can play our part by practicing regularly in small but meaningful ways.
In the next article, which is the last one in my five-part series on intercultural trust, I will show you how to ensure that you make clear promises when working across cultures.