The power of promises Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2010

As the CEO, everything you say is magnified. You might as well walk around with a bullhorn turned up to the highest volume and broadcast even your most insignificant thoughts across the office. Everything is exaggerated. If you don’t smile wide enough when someone says good morning, people start to speculate that it must be because something is wrong with the business. If you don’t stop to chat as you walk by someone’s office, it must be because you hated the proposal he or she turned in last week.

It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way people look at the CEO. They view you through a microscope while you view them through a telescope. Every word gets dissected crossways. What did he really mean? What’s the significance of the red tie he’s wearing? He requested a meeting for next week — are we in trouble? Whether you like it or not, what you say carries a lot of weight with your employees.

Be very careful what you say, because anything you promise will come back to haunt you if you don’t follow through. And I’m not just talking about promises about big-picture initiatives. If you told someone that you would look into why there are no pens in the supply room, you better follow through. If someone thought it was important enough to bring to your attention, then it’s a major priority for that person. It might be at the bottom of your priority list, but if you told the employee you would look into and you forget, he or she will see that as a broken promise and call the rest of your leadership and integrity into question.

You may have just forgotten about this minor detail as much more important issues swirl about in this difficult economy, but we live in a world of broken promises. People almost expect that when a promise is made, it won’t be honored.

Lehman Brothers promised to take care of investors’ money and manage it wisely. Its broken promises wiped out what had once been a pillar of the financial community and helped put the economy into a tailspin as people lost faith in the system.

People in your company look to you for guidance. If you say you are going to do something, then do it. If there’s a chance you won’t get to it, then you are better off not saying anything.

The other thing to remember is that as the CEO, you set the tone. If you don’t follow up on things you say you are going to do, your senior managers will see that as acceptable behavior and do the same thing. The people under them will do likewise, and the next thing you know, you have a culture of people who don’t value the promises they make. Eventually, customers will become the victims of this behavior. Managers and salespeople will make promises and then not deliver.

Be careful with what you say and how you say it. Talk to your managers and make sure that there aren’t any items that you told people you would take care of that have been neglected.

Promises are a big deal, even when they may be about things that seem trivial at times. Breaking promises is the fastest way to destroy your credibility.

There will be times when you simply just can’t keep a promise. It could be something that’s completely out of your control or just bad luck. Perhaps you promised bonuses, but one of your biggest customers canceled its contract, so you can no longer afford to issue bonuses. Or maybe a storm damaged one of your facilities and the money had to be spent to put everything back in working order. Regardless of the reason, if you have to break a promise, make sure you take action.

Talk to the people involved, explain what happened and then do whatever it takes to make it right. Most people will understand why something wasn’t delivered if you give them all of the information.

In a world where people don’t honor promises, it’s important that you set the standard in your company. Be careful with what you say, do what you say you are going to do, and if something goes wrong, explain why. If you do all of those things, your credibility will remain high and people will know they can trust you.