Growing up, the lesson was that we should never, ever break a promise. As leaders, we hear messages that affirm that lesson – “you’re only as good as your word,” or DWYSYWD (Do What You Say You Will Do). Of course, these are very good principles to abide by.
But what about those times when it simply is not possible to keep a promise you’ve made? The absolute moral imperatives don’t give us any latitude, nor any instruction, about how to handle situations when a promise made will not be a promise kept.
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It goes without saying that these times, when promises will be broken, should be the rare exception to the promise rules. But it would be naive to say that every promise can be kept. So when those times come, we should be prepared to break our promises honorably. The objective would be to break the promise without breaking the relationship and without damaging our own credibility. Can it be done? How?
We first broached this subject as a subpoint in a blog series about behaving as a leader. That subpoint said that leaders sometimes need to break promises. After fielding several indignant responses and incredulous questions, we thought we should clarify that we are not advocating frivolous promise-breaking nor giving license to those who never intended to keep their word. This blog post is meant to explain how to break a promise in those times when there is absolutely, positively no other choice.
Making a promise is, indeed, a profound act. Within each promise is encapsulated the possibility of hope fulfilled and the vulnerability of broken trust. We must all take our promises seriously. But no one should be the prisoner of an impossible promise.
Circumstances change. Life alters our paths, and we sometimes are left with no other choice but to realign our promises to match the current reality. It’s not a lack of integrity, in those situations, to break a promise. Instead, integrity is measured by what you say and do when you have no choice left and must break a promise.
In order to break a promise honorably, you need to be sure to do the following:
- Acknowledge that you are breaking a promise. This isn’t something you can mask or hide. Don’t wait too long to communicate about this either. If people notice you backing away gradually or denying that you will break the promise, they will remember those actions and realize when you do tell them that you’ve been holding out for a while.
- Explain why you are breaking the promise. But don’t blame others. Ultimately, you are the one who made the promise and you are responsible for your part of that promise.
- Apologize for breaking the promise. Being overly defensive or distancing yourself from the situation makes it sound like this type of promise-breaking could happen at any time because you’re not in control. Instead, be accountable and reveal what you plan to do differently in the future.
- Look for a way to honor the original intent of the promise even though you are unable to follow through on the original plan.
- Understand that the people you made the promise will be disappointed, hurt or angry. They were counting on something and must make an adjustment. You can’t expect them to immediately accept this and move forward.
When you make promise-breaking a very rare event, chances are that others will give you a little grace when you do need to break a promise you’ve made. When you do break a promise, doing it in the honorable ways listed here will also help others to see that you accept responsibility. Breaking a promise, in the right way, may even enhance trust and build your relationships.
This blog post was originally published on March 6, 2013 and was selected for the CONNECT! Community’s series on trust. As a leader, it’s absolutely essential for you to be trustworthy and to trust others. Learn more about the 12 Dimensions of Trust and how you can CONNECT2Lead. And be sure to subscribe to the CONNECT2Lead Blog for weekly tips and techniques on leading with a people first approach.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published January 2014 and has been recently updated.