THE CARDINAL SINS OF MANAGEMENT: 5. BANKRUPTING YOUR WORD

“You have my word”.

Throughout written history — Western history at least — the phrase “you have my word” has carried significant symbolic meaning.  It is often paired with the concept of honor and invariably communicates an important contract between he or she who gives their word and he or she to whom that word is given.

I have occasionally known a few managers whose frame of reference for giving their word is politics, where it often seems that changing one’s mind for a variety of reasons is perfectly OK and consequently understood as the nature of the process by all concerned.  I believe such thinking by a manager is dangerous and seriously undermining in the long run.

Although elected to office and therefore beholden to one’s constituents in many ways, a politician’s relationship with the voters is fundamentally different from that of a manager and his or her subordinates.  As a manager you generally have the power to hire and fire those entrusted to your management skills, influence their pay and bonus decisions, and create the opportunities that will help determine their professional and career advancement.  That sort of power over specific individuals is beyond that of a typical politician.

For a manager’s relationship with his or her subordinates to work effectively, a solid level of trust that goes both ways is essential.  A manager asks subordinates to accomplish many things, any number of them tasks they would rather avoid.  Implicit in a subordinate’s willingness to comply is the word of their manager that he or she will support them, have their back when required, follow through on whatever promises and commitments they have made, and do everything possible to help ensure that they succeed professionally.

When a managers promises his or her subordinates something, from the subordinate’s point of view, the manager has given his or her word.  The integrity of that verbal contract is important to the subordinate and breaking it has consequences.  Break these contracts often enough and a manager in essence bankrupts the value of their word.  When one’s word or promises have little value, trust, loyalty, and a willingness to follow a manager’s lead inevitably suffer.

Of course there are times when changing circumstances necessitate revisiting a promise or commitment that no longer is possible or prudent to fulfill.  But the best managers view these situations as an opportunity for a discussion with a subordinate aimed at explaining the reasons they believe a different course of action is now required.  These conversations represent a sign of respect for the subordinate’s ability to fairly consider — if not like — what they hear and make adjustments in their expectations if required.  The best managers never simply renege on a promise; no explanation given or seemingly required.

A wise manager thinks carefully about the promises he or she makes and the specifics of a circumstance where they give their word.  It is better to acknowledge uncertainty, doubt and withhold commitment when necessary, than to make a promise your gut indicates you may soon regret.  Protecting the reliability and dependability of your word is one of the most valuable things you can do as a manager and makes managing subordinates, colleagues, and superiors a lot easier.

It has been years but I still vividly recall the sad aftereffects of a broken management promise by one of my subordinate managers at the time.  The manager had apparently given their word on numerous occasions to a subordinate that a coveted position would be theirs as soon as the current incumbent moved on.  Yet when the time came to fill the position and I asked the manager for his recommendation, a different subordinate was his choice.  I accepted his recommendation and was soon confronted by the aggrieved subordinate whose anger — bordering on fury — and sense of  betrayal was barely contained.  Within months the angry subordinate had departed, the sad tale had spread throughout the manager’s organization, and the damage to the value of the manager’s word was complete.

So when it comes to “giving your word” mean it and follow through, or do not give it at all.

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