In tough times, leaders will sometimes say anything to rekindle optimism. Instead of promises, make leadership commitments. Here’s why.

When leading an organization
through a challenging season, it may seem like the whole world is looking to
you for answers – your employees, your customers, your investors and even the
public at large.

It’s often wise to lead with a message of hope and optimism in the face of adversity. For some, this may include making promises about the future.

While promises might seem like a simple solution, they come with stipulations that, if left unfulfilled, risk damaging your reputation.

Instead of promises, make

For example, let’s examine
the difference between the following sentences:

“I promise employees will
remain safe and employed.”

“I’m committed to keeping
employees safe and employed.”

The problem with promises in the workplace

When you make a promise –
like the one above – to your employees or customers, it plants specific
expectations in their minds about how you will act in the future.

Making promises is like
accruing financial debt. When you use credit to buy something, you’re
committing your future income to an old expense.

When you make a promise, you’re pledging your future time and effort to a past choice. Much like debt, promises lock you in to a timeline for acting upon them.

In the example above, you’re promising
to keep people employed and safe in perpetuity. Any number of scenarios could
make it difficult (if not impossible) to keep that promise.


Because many variables that might
force your hand are simply out of your control. As a result of an unforeseen
event, you might have to let an employee go, while the rest of your staff witnesses
you go back on your promise.

What’s at stake?

Trust is everything when
you’re a leader.

During normal times, trust helps inspire your staff to achieve your business’ common goals and
motivates them to give discretionary effort. In challenging times, trust in
leadership can help calm anxieties and fears that might otherwise cripple the

When you make a promise that
you can’t deliver on, you damage and potentially destroy people’s trust in your
word – even among groups that support you and believe you’re doing your best.

Whether the damage is
temporary or irreparable, that lack of faith can weigh heavy on the morale and productivity of your team. From that point on, you’re digging yourself
out of a hole that was completely avoidable.

If you feel the need to make
a promise, be careful and intentional about what you say and be sure your
promise is achievable. Otherwise, you put yourself and your business at great

The strength of leadership commitment

Leadership commitments are bigger and more powerful than promises. They’re also less specific but stronger in their intention.

Commitments can and should be
backed by action, but leave room for those actions to evolve based on new information
and attitudes. There’s also no inherent deadlines.

With a commitment, your
strategy may change, but your word stays true as long as your actions are in

Let’s circle back to a variation
of the original example:

“I promise to keep our employees safe.”

Instead, you should say, “I’m committed to the safety of our employees. Here’s how.”

As a promise, this statement can
seem hollow. How can you guarantee anyone’s safety?

A commitment, instead of
guaranteeing, shows that you’re dedicated and have humility – a nod to the fact
that leaders aren’t in control of everything.

The seemingly innocuous choice
between a promise of safety or commitment to it can result in wildly different
outcomes in the event of an employee injury:

  1. It could signal failure on your part (because you broke your promise).
  2. Or, it could be an opportunity to renew your commitment to safety by revising and improving your action plan moving forward.

Both scenarios result in a
negative outcome (an employee injury), but the second allows you to address and
rectify shortcomings without eroding trust.

In this scenario, a strong
leader would:

  • Make an unwavering
    commitment to employee safety.
  • Back it
    up with a sound plan.
  • Regularly
    communicate the strategy.
  • Be
    honest about what you don’t know.

Don’t fear commitment

Do you have a tendency to clam up – refusing to provide any guidance or insight – in difficult situations?

Don’t let the difficulty of a
leadership situation or fear of commitment put you into silent mode.

Perhaps it isn’t fear keeping
you from making commitments, but an intentional plan to hold your cards close
to the chest – to under promise and over deliver.

However, research shows that going above and beyond doesn’t actually pay off. As it turns out, people put more value in someone who keeps their word than people who exceed it.

Silence, no matter the justification, can be damaging to trust, morale and productivity of your team. When there’s no transparency, when there’s no vision, employees are left with little to follow or believe in.

Building trust that lasts

During a challenging
leadership situation, make commitments based on your values and company
identity. Communicate early and often and follow up more than seems necessary
about where your organization stands.

Any small victories you make that reinforce your leadership commitments will help you build trust with your employees and customers. When your team believes in where you’re going, what you’re committed to and what you’re doing, they’ll follow you.

For more guidance on how to be a better leader, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.