Why Making Explicit Promises Can Boost Productivity

Leaders who ask for solid commitments have more engaged teams and see better results.

Why Making Explicit Promises Can Boost Productivity
[Photo: Flickr user kayla]

Can a promise boost productivity?


Former Harvard fellow and executive coach Elizabeth Doty believes it can, both on a personal and company-wide level.

She says that the unclear agreements, muddy expectations, and conflicting priorities that cause missed deadlines and projects paralyzed in the analysis phase are caused by “commitment drift,” better known as promises that are forgotten or broken.

Not only a productivity buster, a broken promise can lead a company down a corrosive path. As Doty writes in Strategy+Business:


It leads people to neglect the investments needed to maintain key capabilities, sustain customer relationships, retain employees, execute strategies, and pursue innovations. It also introduces the risk of breakdowns in safety, privacy, and ethics, and erodes the trust of employees, customers, shareholders, and the public. This downward spiral of disengagement can lead to what researchers at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics call “institutional corruption,” wherein good people compromise in ways that divert an organization from its purpose.

She points to research from Babson College professor Jay Rao (who weighed in on Fast Company’s wearables at work report) that indicated one company’s consistent profitability (for more than 50 years) and multiple recognitions for innovation are the result of a cultural focus on “self-commitments” rather than assigned tasks, which, once agreed, were considered as sacred as an oath.

If as Doty posits, “One honest commitment is more valuable than all the lip service in the world,” why do so many leaders fail to extract promises from their staff and teams?

Some leaders feel like they are asking for permission, she found. Instead, the real result of an honest conversation that negotiates a commitment, Doty says, is that it creates a culture of responsibility, ownership, and accountability–all necessary for engaged workers who are committed and productive.


To achieve this goal, Doty suggests the following strategies:

Make Fewer, But Better, Commitments

The first step is to understand your stakeholders’ needs. Leaders planning to implement changes of any size or scope need to understand that their team really wants to know if that change will last. It’s a simple step from there to commit to what’s going to be most valuable to them.

Keep Track Of Key Commitments

This doesn’t have to be hard, says Doty. Simply keep a list of the people who are depending on you to deliver, then list your promise to each one. For example, she writes, “I will provide my direct reports with the resources they need.” And, under those, your specific promises: “I will hire two new engineers by the end of September.”


Ask For Commitments From Others

Promises work both ways, but leaders need to ask for what they want. A simple statement of the request and some suggestion of how they might get started can help. Doty does caution that this needs to be made in such a way that offers the person a clear choice to accept the commitment, not demand a promise, otherwise they will say yes and not follow through.

Make Connections Between Commitments

One way to get people engaged and committed is to facilitate collaboration with others. Communicating how each person or team fits into the overall contribution to the company can increase buy-in and motivates them to move forward.

Process Trumps Heroic Efforts

Doty found that leaders tend to rely on last-ditch heroics by a staff member instead of creating processes that would ease the path to meeting goals. By making an upfront investment to smooth potential bumps, it’s easier for team members to promise and deliver results.


Be Consistent

It’s important to have everyone on the same page in order to deliver on commitments. “Consistency is the way most people decide whether you are sincere and they can trust you,” writes Doty. Those leaders who integrate functions and actually make sure that everyone is talking about the same thing avoid the contradictions that can erode trust.

Says Doty:

When managers pay more attention to commitments, they generate momentum. And they find that having the courage to say “yes” or “no,” and to stick to their promises over time, actually decreases their workload and increases their impact.


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a staff editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.