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Aprais Client-agency Relationships Agency Business

Making promises you can't keep will destroy trust in the workplace - here's why



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October 26, 2022 | 4 min read

Picture this familiar movie scene: in the midst of destruction and mayhem, the enigmatic hero turns to the surrounding weak and vulnerable and with deep conviction, reassures: "It will all be ok, I promise


Even though I tell myself “it's just a movie,” as a business leader I cringe.

Why? Surely making a promise is key to motivation and shows leadership and decisiveness?

Making promises you can’t keep

My problem is that you cannot make a promise about something over which you have no control. I believe most intelligent beings will recognize such promises as vacuous and dismiss them, along with the credibility of their author.

Throughout my career I've stuck to the principle "say what you do and do what you say". Leaders need to be decisive and reassuring. They need to make sensible promises. But a vacuous promise or promise unfulfilled, will destroy trust in an instant.

To build and sustain a relationship, whether personal or in business, trust must be proven. Some say trust is 'earned'. My experience suggests partners and business leaders need to proactively 'prove' their trustworthiness.

Trust in the workplace

So it was with interest that I read the latest Edelman Trust Barometer report entitled; Trust In The Workplace.

One outstanding finding from this research is that after friends and family, ‘workplace’ is the most important source of community. Wow! What a responsibility.

The report suggests a new employer mandate: bridging societal divides. To earn trust, employers must become a source of quality information.

While there's no disputing this research and its findings about the emerging role of employers, I suggest we look at the woods before getting lost in the proverbial trees.

Growing importance of trust

Trust is one of the seven behaviours Aprais filters in its extensive database of more than 25,000 team evaluations over the past 20 years. See our full report on Trust here.

When we looked at the movement of these behaviours over the past decade, the importance of Trust increased modestly relative to other behaviours. However, Trust was the highest-scoring behaviour in 2011 and remained so in 2021, meaning it is a core priority for all client-agency relationships regardless of era or challenges faced.

Three pillars of trust in the workplace

I believe there are three fundamental pillars upon which leaders build trust. Over the course of my career I have tried and tested these through, sometimes painful, experience.

· Be fair

· Be honest

· Be open

You can’t fulfil promises you don’t make

As a young account executive I employed a special tactic. I would proactively commit to actions with my client or superior that deserved a reassuring promise; “I will get back to you before the close of business today”. “I will make this happen”.

Just as a magician knows the outcome of a trick he performs, I often knew what the recipient did not. I had a great degree of certainty I could deliver on the promise. It then remained up to me to a) make it happen and b) ensure that all concerned were aware I had fulfilled my stated promise.

Just as a simple trick may awe the audience, a promise fulfilled never failed to impress, and to build trust.

My closing advice is to make sensible promises and keep your promises.

Trust is earned when actions meet words.

In the words of the legendary Stephen R Covey: 'Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.’

Aprais Client-agency Relationships Agency Business


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