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Where Do You Keep Your Word after You Give It?

Jeffrey Ford Posted by Jeffrey Ford.

Jeffrey Ford is associate professor of management in the Fisher College of Business at the Ohio State University in Columbus. He coauthored Deadline Busting: How to be a Star Performer in Your Organization with Laurie Ford in 2005.


Where Do You Keep Your Word after You Give It?

I believe a cornerstone of personal leadership effectiveness is operating with integrity.  Michael Jensen, the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School contends that without integrity, nothing works. Jensen defines integrity as honoring your word, which means that (1) you keep your word, and (2) just as soon as you are aware you will not be keeping your word, notifying everyone impacted that you will not be keeping your word and dealing responsibly with the consequences (for a more detailed discussion see “Integrity: A Positive Model that Incorporates the Normative Phenomena of Morality, Ethics and Legality” at http://ssrn.com/abstract=920625).

It is clear that every time we make a promise, regardless of how big or small it may be or to whom we make it, we give our word.  It is probably less clear, however, that we also give our word every time we accept a promise.  When we accept a promise, we give our word to the person making the promise to receive whatever has been promised by the time it has been promised.

Making and accepting promises creates occasions for honoring our word and raises an important issue: “Where do we keep track of our promises so that we might honor them?”  We cannot reliably honor the promises we have made, or reliably hold others accountable for the promises they have made to us, if we do not have a record of the promises made.

Many people keep “To Do Lists” in which they record the things they want to do, but few of us keep “Due Lists” in which we record the promises we have made or accepted.  Unfortunately, too many of us keep our promises in our memory, which is notoriously unreliable.  The result is that we forget promises, making us look incompetent, political, or inconsistent.

By keeping our promises in something like a “Due List”, we increase the likelihood of remembering what we have given our word to and the chances of honoring our word.  This, in turn,  increases our credibility, trustworthiness, and effectiveness.