Don’t Promise What You Can’t (or Won’t) Deliver

Swear with fingers crossed

“Losers make promises they often break.  Winners make commitments they always keep.”  This quote by Denis Waitley, a well respected success coach and author, provides valuable insight into the modern workplace.

Trust and promises go hand-in-hand.

We’ve all had promises broken by our bosses, coworkers, colleagues,…and ourselves.  While many times there were very good reasons why we couldn’t follow through on what we promised to do, I sometimes wonder whether we focus too much on the reasons behind the broken promise, rather than the effects that our broken promises have on others.

When someone breaks a promise to us, there is often a shift in the relationship.  Depending on the ramifications of that broken promise in our lives, it can destroy the level of trust that may have taken years to establish.  If the business relationship is new, it may cause us to be more cautious in our future dealings with both that individual and others as well.

We need to believe that what people tell us is the truth.  How many times have you depended on another’s person’s commitment to action in developing your own timeline, action plan, or financial decisions?  In this situation, our own personal integrity might have been put to the test because we’ve made promises to others that were contingent upon someone else’s promise to complete a task at a given time.  In such situations, it is not surprising that tempers flare and skepticism infuses future dealings with that person.

The effects of broken promises vary:

  • Is it the first time that a promise has been broken?  Many people will allow a second chance.
  • Was it a “soft” deadline with few ramifications?  Many people will let it go and not let it affect future dealings with that person.
  • Was it just one more incidence of someone failing to live up to what they promised?  In these situations, it might be healthier for both parties to redefine the psychological contract (or expectations) within this relationship.
  • Finally, was the broken promise the inadvertent result of other events that affected the person’s ability to do what they said that they would do – or did that person intentionally commit to something they knew that they could not or would not do?  Broken promises and intentional deceit are two very different situations that require very different responses.

In conversations with colleagues, it appears that trust in the workplace is at an all-time low.  The list of broken promises in the workplace can be found in missed deadlines, subpar performance, and withheld resources.

Puleo’s Pointers:  Some Things to Remember When Making Promises     

Care should be taken when making promises.  If there is any doubt about our ability to deliver, then that needs to be stated directly and initially.  In this way, the person who is relying on us to “make good” on our promise is forewarned and can decide whether or not to depend on us to take these actions.

But even if he or she is forewarned, that does not give us the option to not follow through on what we promised.  A promise is a commitment that needs to be honored.

However, stuff does happen.  If circumstances lead to a broken promise, then it is critical to notify the person who is depending upon us immediately.  Delay – for whatever reason – is never viewed positively.  Also, diligently try to find an alternative to your inability to do the task.

Instead of focusing on the litany of events that led to the broken promise, acknowledge that we failed to do what we said we were going to do and not only apologize, but also empathize.  Simply acknowledging our mistake, recognizing the inconvenience that it is causing the other person, and offering another option can take some of the sting out of the broken promise.

Above all, commit to meeting any promises made to that person in the future.  After a promise has been broken, there has been a withdrawal from the emotional bank account that we share with this person.  Meeting future promises helps to rebuild bridges, strengthen the relationship, and move forward.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to

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