Over a decade ago, I attended a workshop that radically changed my perspective as a leader. The facilitator talked about promises and commitments, and the profound impact they have on working relationships. The workshop was based on the work of Fernando Flores, and I embarked on a journey to learn more about him and his work. More than ten years later, I still refer to what I learned in that workshop as a guiding principle in my work as a leadership coach and facilitator.
Flores’ biography is fascinating. Born in Chile, he was the finance minister under Salvador Allende. After the military coup by Pinochet, he became a political prisoner for three years and was eventually exiled. He obtained a PhD at UC Berkeley (despite entering the United States with limited English). His work is a mix of philosophy, management theory and linguistics.
“People don’t merely use language to communicate their desires about the future; they create the future in language together by making commitments to each other. Conversation then, is not mere a prelude to action, it is its very essence.” – Fernando Flores
Flores has had an enormous influence on many theorists of leadership. His collections of essays, Conversations for Action and Other Essays: Instilling a Culture of Commitment in Working Relationships, and Building Trust in Business, Politics, Relationships and Life, are both excellent reads, if a bit challenging.
Flores suggests that there are a limited number of “speech acts” that we use—and that understanding these and being intentional about them is essential if we are to create healthy organizations and relationships. Here, I’ll focus on promises and requests. I explored two of the other speech acts, assessments and assertions, in a prior post.
The Power of Promises
A promise is powerful—even sacred. Yet, we make promises too easily, often without realizing we are making them. We say yes, but forget, never really meant to say yes, knew we wouldn’t have time, or had great intentions but circumstances changed. However, the way we manage our promises is at the heart of how our organizations perform. Organizations, according to Flores, are networks of promises. Promises aren’t typically made by one person alone—my ability to keep a promise is typically connected to other people’s promises to me.
If I make a promise and the downstream commitments are not kept, the whole network can collapse. Since I began to see promises in this way, I’ve been much more careful about not making promises that rely on others without confirming with them first. It’s made a world of difference for the quality of my commitments and relationships.
In my work as a leadership coach and facilitator, I frequently return to these principles. I am careful of the promises I make to my clients, and frame all requests clearly. I challenge my clients to model the behavior they want to see from their teams, starting with their relationship with me. In addition, I make only the promises I know I can keep, and expect clients to do the same.
A leader’s role is to model strong promises—which requires an awareness of the capacity (and courage) to manage that commitment if circumstances change. It’s not easy to come back to someone and admit that you overcommitted. So often, we just let things slide and hope no one will notice. In doing so, we undermine our credibility.
Clear Requests are Crucial
Modelling clear requests is just as important as modelling strong promises. An unclear request will rarely result in a strong promise, and the requestor and the promiser both end up frustrated. Clear requests are specific about what is required, for whom, and by when. Perhaps most critical, however, is leaders establishing a culture in which requests are not interpreted (or intended) as demands. There should be room for dialogue and negotiation, and the ability to say no when a yes is not possible.
Clear requests and promises, managed well, create a culture of commitment and accountability. When a leader is careful about her own commitments to her people, she demonstrates profound respect for her team. I’ve led workshops where leaders realize they are not making clear requests, are not open to pushback, or are not actively managing their commitments. In that moment of realization, they begin to understand that the challenges they see in their organizations are the result of their own behavior.
Not only are there breakdowns, the lack of respect that results from a faulty network of promises leads to reduced commitment and reduced engagement. Being intentional with the way we speak and communicate, and managing our requests and promises effectively is essential in developing a culture where people are committed and connected.
Not long ago, a participant who sat quietly through a workshop I delivered on this topic spoke up and said, “it’s about integrity. Your integrity is expressed through your promises and requests.” By being mindful of the commitments we ask for, the commitments we make, and how we ask for and manage those commitments, we translate our values into our day-to-day, moment to moment interactions, and create organizations and relationships that thrive.
I strive to operate my business with integrity, and coach my clients to run their teams the same way. Making clear requests and promises, and following through on the commitments I make has not only been personally fulfilling, it’s been a sound business investment.