StairsBreaking a promise is one of the biggest mistakes that a person can make in their career. Broken promises are a problem because:

  • They diminish the value of your word: People want to count on you when you say you will do something. If you regularly drop the ball, people will rely on you less.
  • They cause you to lose opportunities: If you regularly break your promises, people will not want to have you on their projects, teams, and/or committees.
  • They lower your self-esteem: You may not know why you don’t come through on your commitments, but knowing that you aren’t holding up your end of a deal can make you question your own integrity.

Do you write down action items and then complete only some of them? Do you miss deadlines? Do you make commitments and inconsistently deliver? If you said yes to any of these questions, you are breaking promises, and that means you are hurting your reputation and future career prospects.

Here are four ways to start building a reputation for reliability, delivery, and contribution after you’ve broken a promise:

  • Don’t forget the things that you promise to do: The best way to do this is to keep a written record of your promises. When you take action items voluntarily or via assignation, put them on a list. This keeps the specifics of your responsibilities in an easily accessible physical place. You might otherwise forget them if you store them only in your mind.
  • Clarify what is expected of you: Ensure that you and those you work with are synchronized. Match what you believe you are supposed to be doing with the expectations other people have of you. Get confirmations in writing. An example of this might be writing a summary of a meeting which identifies the action items you are to take and sharing it with others. Give people the opportunity to respond by saying something like, “If there is something that you anticipate me doing that is not on this list, please reply and let me know right away so I can be sure to fulfill all of my responsibilities.”
  • Take on less: There will almost always be more things for you to do than you can possibly attend to. Do only those things that are of highest importance and be clear that you will not be doing the rest. Make sure others share your priorities.
  • Use “as promised” in your communications: When writing follow-up emails or talking to people, state specifically that you are delivering on your commitment. For example, say, “We discussed the trigger list for creating your list of things to do. As promised, I am sending the list to you attached to this email.”
  • If you might miss a deadline or have to stop one project to give attention to another, renegotiate: You will need diplomacy and tact to deliver your message and receive understanding and acceptance that things have changed. However, you will also get credit for integrity and keeping your eye on the ball.


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