September 06, 2017 by Dede Henley

Broken Promises


It happens to the best of us - we don’t do what we said we would do. We call this a “broken promise.”  We had the best of intentions when we made the promise and were optimistic that we would be able to deliver on it, on time.  But, life happens, and before you know it, a deadline has slipped or passed and you feel bad about it.

Let’s learn a bit more about one of the most fundamental of communication elements – a promise. A promise is what you make to show your commitment to fulfill a request.  When you make a promise, it means that you understand what the request entails, that you are capable of doing what you said you would do and that you are sincere in your commitment to fulfill the promise you have made.  

Trust is impacted when you make promises and don’t keep them or when you are unwilling to be responsible for the consequences of the broken promise.  We trust others when we believe they are able, willing and accountable for keeping their promises and commitments.  Low trust is one of the biggest complaints from the teams we serve. 

Promises have a big impact because they are central to our relationships. Fulfilled promises help trust to increase in our important work relationships.  Trust is the invisible thread that ties together integrity. Without the trust, communication is challenging.

Why do we break our promises?

Commitments are sometimes made even though we are not completely clear about what the commitment entails. We say yes before we really think about what fulfilling on the promise will take.  Let’s say your boss asks you to compile some data for an important meeting by Monday.  You say yes, but don’t realize that the data is not readily available and a report can’t be produced by Monday. Your promise will be broken.  This can result in frustration and embarrassment.  What should you do? Before you make another promise, ask for clarity.  Asking for clarity is not a weakness; it is an act of integrity that clarifies our commitment to fulfilling requests.

We may find that we are not competent enough to fulfill our promise. We may run out of time to meet the commitment because of sudden emergencies needing our immediate attention. Still, the requester is waiting, counting on our promise. When a promise is broken, it is imperative that we courageously and accurately communicate with the requester. We do this by describing the current problem that is keeping us from fulfilling our promise. Not by making excuses, but by accurately describing what is going on.

Make a New Promise

It is essential to make a new promise within a timeframe that can be guaranteed – you don’t want a second broken promise!  You take responsibility for what was broken and clarify future action between you and your requester. Addressing broken promises can strengthen our relationships for the future. We call this cleaning up a mess. 

Build your muscle for only making promises you know you can deliver on. Don’t be loose about saying, “yes.”  Your integrity depends on your ability to do what you said you would do. 


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