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By Fred Kofman
Philosopher and Vice President at Linkedin

“Economic life depends on moral bonds of social trust. This is the unspoken, unwritten bond between fellow citizens that facilitates transactions, empowers individual creativity, and justifies collective action. … The social capital represented by trust is as important as physical capital.”
Francis Fukuyama

The evolution of humankind owes more to the division of labor than to the invention of the wheel. There were civilizations such as the early Egypt without the wheel, but no societies without specialization. In today’s world, each of us needs the cooperation of an unimaginable number of people simply to survive.

Take the coffee you drank this morning. Consider how many people helped deliver it to you. The growers, shippers, sellers, buyers, packagers, retailers and all those who provide services to them are part of an amazing network of coordinated action. (In his remarkable essay “I Pencil,” –see video at the bottom– Leonard Reed reveals the extraordinary complexity behind the production of a simple pencil.)

Whether we are working together as employers and employees, fellow team members, or husband and wife, our effectiveness depends on the integrity with which we exchange requests and promises that allow us to coordinate our actions.

But it is not only the effectiveness of the task (IT) that depends on our commitments. The bonds of trust strengthen or weaken with them as well. When you promise frivolously or default carelessly you harm your relationships (WE), and you betray your values (I). That is why commitment conversations carry huge consequences. Are you impeccable about your commitments or do you take them lightly? Is your word your bond, or wishful fluff?

I have noticed a remarkable correlation between the impeccability of commitments and the effectiveness of individuals and groups. In a culture in which people hold each other accountable, where commitments are taken seriously, there is trust, coordination, and efficiency. Perhaps most important, a culture of impeccability in commitments fosters a sense of achievement, dignity, and self-worth in its members.

Promises You Intend To Keep

In order to commit with integrity, you must intend to keep your promise. This implies that you must believe the following:

1. You understand the request. If you don’t understand the conditions of satisfaction (including time), then you cannot expect to fulfill them. You are signing a contract that you haven’t read.

2. You have a robust plan. If your plan can be derailed by likely contingencies, then you cannot expect it to withstand their impact. You are hoping for the best, but not preparing for the worst.

3. You have the necessary skills and resources. If you don’t have the required skills and resources, then you cannot expect to finish the job. You are writing a fraudulent check with no funds in your account.

4. You have a way to track progress and adjust the plan if necessary. You must stay on track to deliver according to plan. If you fall behind, then you need to re-plan and check whether your skills and resources are still sufficient.

5. You have a way to contact your creditor if you need to revise the commitment. Even the best laid plans can go astray. To be sure you can honor your word even if you can’t fulfill the commitment you made you need to be able to apologize and renegotiate.

Unless you believe you fulfill each and every one of these requirements, then you cannot make a promise in good conscience.

Of course, you can make an honest mistake, but you cannot tell an honest lie. You may mistakenly believe that you can deliver when in fact you cannot. But you may not honestly say that you will deliver when you believe you cannot.

There are, unfortunately, too many examples of lack of integrity in organizations:

  • People leave a meeting where they silently nodded when they were tasked with action items muttering, “What are we supposed to do now?”
  • A manager makes a promise, without checking that his team has the skills and resources (especially time) required for the project.
  • A salesperson promises immediate delivery of an item without checking if it’s available–or worse yet, knowing it’s not available.
  • “Priorities shift” and someone applies committed resources to a different task without renegotiating with his creditor.
  • A small breakdown justifies big delays—the typical “traffic” excuse.
  • Things go off track but nobody notices until it’s too late. Or they notice, but say nothing until it’s too late.

Find more exercises related to mindfulness at work here

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