Aug 21, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Leaders make a lot of promises.

They promise high-quality products and experiences to customers, careers that offer opportunity and purpose to employees, ambitious strategies to accelerate innovation to investors, and social and environmental responsibility to society at large.

But in practice many leaders struggle to keep their commitments.

Under the pressure of a quota, deadline, or amid the turmoil of constant change, some leaders experience “commitment drift,” in which critical promises are forgotten or broken. Commitment drift is dangerous because it erodes trust and undermines relationship

7 common pitfalls to avoid

It’s challenging for leaders to remember commitments over time — let alone communicate them clearly, hand them off between departments, or adjust them effectively as priorities change. To avoid commitment drift leaders must sidestep some common pitfalls.

  1. Make fewer, better commitments — Too often, professionals make promises that miss the mark for stakeholders. A sales leader may offer a discount to close a sale, when what the customer wants is an assurance that the company is acting as a trusted advisor.  When you take the time to understand your stakeholders’ needs, you can make meaningful commitments.
  2. Track your key commitment — The sheer volume of commitments leaders are asked to make can result in making promises they can’t keep, or forgetting the promises they’ve made as new ones eclipse their time and attention. Tracking promises doesn’t have to be elaborate – software tools can help you review and update your list.
  3. Ask for commitment from others — Leaders are often mystified by the lack of execution after major initiatives are launched. Yet these same leaders may fail to articulate exactly what commitment they’re asking others to make. A simple statement of what you’re asking others to commit to and how they can get started can turn the situation around.
  4. Connect the dots between departments — When leaders focus narrowly on what they “own,” they focus less on connecting the dots with other groups. But these connections may have the most overall impact on company results. Companies improve enormously by ensuring teams understand how their work fits together, and motivating them to base their priorities on the company’s goals.
  5. Focus on processes, not heroics — Leaders frequently rely on the heroic efforts of committed employees as a substitute for effective processes, and end up wearing out their employees’ goodwill. Having poor processes, or tampering with processes without understanding them, creates inefficiency, waste, delays, and rework. When companies invest in developing repeatable processes, they make it easy for employees to deliver on promises, and free up their creativity for the next big idea.
  6. Know what commitments you’re inheriting in a new role — If new leaders jump into action without knowing what was promised in the past, they can unwittingly violate prior commitments, undermine trust and increase the chances of resistance. Ask “What promises have been made?” when you start a new role to ensure the important ones are kept — or are changed with respect and consideration.
  7. Continually check for contradictions — Consistency is the way most people decide whether you can be trusted. When they find leaders speaking out of both sides of their mouth, they understandably assume the worst. Yet this kind of contradiction can happen all too easily. Acting with integrity means continually integrating functions to avoid the contradictions that erode trust.

Keeping commitments build a thriving business

Reliable promises engender the confidence that enables customers to buy, employees to engage, shareholders to invest, and the public to trust. Unfortunately, leaders frequently make decisions without paying attention to what was promised, what they can truly deliver, or whether they’ve kept their commitments over time.

When leaders pay more attention to commitments, they generate momentum.

Invest in systems, rewards, and habits that make it easy to make solid commitments, connect the dots with other departments, and remember promises. That’s how thriving businesses create an upward spiral of trust and strong results.

The post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.