There are few elements or factors in a working relationship as important and crucial as this: the confidence we each need to have in each other that we will do what we say we will do. This has two parts to it: first, that we do what we say we will do and, second, that it will happen when we said we would do it.
This came to mind in a very simple yet telling way for me when a little while ago I had an exchange with someone who stated very simply that: “I’ll get back to you by Tuesday of this coming week and let you know one way or the other what we have decided.” When Tuesday came and went I was still wondering if this was a “go” – if what was being proposed was going to happen – but then thought that perhaps he had been delayed by a day or two so I let it go and kept it in mind as “pending”. But then the end of the week came and went and by a week after I realized that I was left hanging and that this gentleman had either forgotten and simply moved on or that he decided that, for some reason, he did not need to respond. Even though it was a relatively small matter in the grand scheme of things, I was struck by what a difference it would have made if instead of silence or no answer, one of two things had happened.
Either he got back to me on that Tuesday, as expected, with “as promised, this is to confirm . . . “. Or, on that very Tuesday he replied with, “Gordon, I know we said we would get back to you by today, but something has come up and if it is okay with you, we’ll let you know by Friday.” Or some variation on either of those responses. But, the main point is that it would have made a significant difference if he kept his word – and did what he said he would do, when he said he would do it or at least acknowledged that he knew I was waiting to hear from him.
In organizations, our work is highly interdependent: we each have our responsibilities and we each have deadlines that we are working towards and we are each accountable to someone for what we are supposed to be doing and when we are supposed to do it. Every one of us does what we are supposed to do but with a high degree of dependence on others. And that dependence is not inappropriate; mutual inter-dependence is a mark of a highly effective organization. But that dependence presumes not only the quality and character of that work in itself, an important but separate matter, but very specifically the capacity for each of us to depend on the word of the other: that they will do what they say they will do when they said they would do it . . . or, failing that, for whatever reason, they will let us know that “something has come up”.
Let me stress something here: we live and work in a messy and complicated world! All kinds of things happen that might keep us from meeting an obligation we have made. And of course, sometimes we over-promise: we make a commitment to finish a project or submit a report when, quite simply, we are not taking account of all that is on our desk. We promise what which we simply cannot deliver; we make a commitment without taking account of all the variables or complications or contingencies that could so easily complicate our lives. So, for starters, don’t over promise. But, with a reasonable time line for what we have said we will do, then be the kind of person who is consistent and timely.
If we miss a deadline, then apologize – not as a matter of course, but as the exception so that those who work with you know that this is not the normal way in which you work. Rather, this: let’s each make it a habit of our working patterns and working relationships that when we say that we will do something, we deliver: timely, consistent, dependable. Few things make such a powerful difference in the quality of our working relationships.