What is the value of a promise?
More importantly, what are the consequences when a promise is not honored?
Here is the unfortunate truth…
- People don’t always honor their promises
- Brands don’t always honor their promises
- Governments don’t always honor promises
I have had friends and acquaintances throughout my life who have fallen short on their promises. I’ve worked for companies who have fallen short on promises. Even though I always intends to honor the promises I’ve made, there are times where I’ve fallen short on my promises.
It happens…but why does it happen.
I think today is a perfect day to be a little more curious about promises.
Let’s unpack some of the places we make promises, some of the reasons we break them, and what we can do about it.
Oh, and in case you didn’t know, today is Juneteenth. Keep that in mind, it might be important.
Broken Promises: Beyond Control
The first reason that a promise will be broken is due to circumstances beyond control. This could take two forms:
- “I was going to be there on time, and even left early but I got stuck in traffic because of an accident.“
- “I was going to show up on time, but due to my sleep chronotype and ADHD, I may often arrive 5-10 minutes late despite my assurances that I can change.”
In both cases, the reason for breaking the promise has to do with something that cannot be controlled. Yes, there are mitigating actions that can be taken, but there is no amount of planning that can overcome a random event, and no reliable methods to counteract how your brain and body naturally function on an ongoing, consistent basis, without failure.
Sometimes, even though people understand the promise, and fully intend to commit to it, there are circumstances beyond control.
These are the broken promises that are the hardest to fix.
Broken Promises: Beyond Understanding
The second reason that a promise is broken is due to a lack of real understanding of what is being promised.
I’ve seen a lot of talk about how companies having a Brand purpose, missions statements, or corporate values, is a bunch of nonsense. Oh, how they laughed as they candidly dismiss such endeavors as baloney, ballyhoo, or poppycock!
But I would argue that the primary reason why some companies want to avoid this kind of work is because it puts them on the hook. Not only do they have to come up with all of those words and ideas, but then somehow make it real. In truth, most don’t know how to do that, even if they want to.
Page nine of the original Netflix culture deck made an important point about company values.
It was a call to move values from theory to action. It stated that what really mattered is what these values look like, in practice.
I have held on to this idea in all of the work I’ve done in culture. It is an antidote to one of the big reasons why corporate promises get broken. The promises are vaguely written, poorly explained, and therefore not well understood.
Sure, integrity sounds great, but what does that actually mean? Most importantly, what does that mean here?
If we want to fix breaking those sorts of problems, the solution is clarity and specificity.
- We must be exceptionally clear about what we mean, and the specifics around how we will implement the ideas.
- We want to make sure that we have chosen language that leaves little room for misinterpretation or error.
- Finally, we want to choose words we can universally stand behind.
Only once we’ve done this work, and we fully understand what we’re promising, are we ready to see our promises through.
Broken Promises: Beyond Intention
The final type of promise that gets broken, is the one that was never intended to be kept.
Today is Juneteenth, a national holiday celebrating the end to slavery in the United States. Except, slavery didn’t actually end, it just changed shape.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, passed around 6 months after the event in Texas, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.
Did you catch that convenient little loop hole?
The 13th Amendment was a promise made with fingers crossed behind the back. The promise wasn’t a law against the idea of slavery in all cases. It doesn’t unequivocally state that the practice of owning other humans and forcing them to give away their labor for free is abhorrently wrong in all forms. No, it doesn’t say that. It simply clarifies the conditions for the cases where it is acceptable.
So, naturally, it was easy enough to:
- create laws that can be used to more easily criminalize “certain” types of people
- systematically impoverish “certain” groups of people
- over-police “certain” neighborhoods
- enforce laws in ways that disproportionately affect “certain” people; and
- build a for-profit prison system to allow for slavery and involuntary servitude largely made up of “certain” populations
But it doesn’t end there. “Certain” communities are disproportionately impacted by this over the course of generations, creating a cycle of economic harm that perpetuates.
Well, since there is no federal law that guarantees those convicted of a felony retain their right to vote, depending on the state, “certain” groups are disenfranchised and excluded from the democratic process. This excludes “certain” people from using democratic means to address their grievances.
If you haven’t caught on, the “certain” people, groups, and communities I’m referencing above, are black and brown people in America. The United States had never actually made a real promise to end slavery but made a partial promise, leaving open an obvious loophole.
These types of promises can only be corrected when we are in the room to catch them at the source, or call them on it and take action after the fact to see the loophole closed, the continued harm ceased immediately, and rectifying actions provided without question.
We can do better.
Let’s stop breaking promises.
- Let’s create the openness to discuss and forgive for the things we cannot control.
- Let’s do the work to ensure that we fully understand what we’re promising and know exactly how we will deliver on it.
- Let’s make sure that we are dismantling any system that makes promises it has no intention of honoring. Let’s put pressure on them until the consequences for broken promises far outweigh the gain from getting away with it.
Juneteenth is an opportunity for us to think about all of the promises we’ve failed to live up to, especially those that continue to harm those who have been deliberately excluded or oppressed for far too long.
More than just thinking, it’s our opportunity to look for every opportunity to set things on the right path toward the promises of our highest ideals. It’s one of the many things we need to do if we want to see a world that is kinder, safer, and equitable.
👉 Quick Note: Hopefully, this should be obvious but Juneteenth is important and we should celebrate it. It celebrates an important event that took place a full TWO YEARS after the Emancipation Proclamation to finally free the remaining slaves in the United States. That’s a big deal and something we should acknowledge. So, I just want to be clear that today’s post about promises is not a critique of the celebration of Juneteenth, but a reminder that the promise was not fulfilled.