Making and Keeping Commitments

Keeping commitments, like keeping promises, has practical and ethical implications throughout our life. None of us are spared this duty, and all of us will be judged for how well we fulfill it. Although I approach this theme with the workplace in mind, there is little in it that does not apply equally to relationships and role-based responsibilities outside of work.

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Commitment: It's about what happens when the honeymoon is over.

One of the most appreciated qualities we can cultivate in life is a pattern of keeping our commitments. A fortunate few among us seem to have learned this lesson well early in life. In them it seems natural, and we’re tempted to take it for granted like their blue eyes. But let me assure you, no one is able to sustain this pattern without effort and care, especially as our roles in life become more complicated. 

Then, upon closer inspection, we notice it’s their judgment in making commitments that helps explain their ability to keep commitments. As they advance in life and career, they too face growing demands. Many of these are the role-based demands that we take on as a partner or spouse, a leader or parent, or simply as a colleague or vital team member. We all get busier in this way! 

The Cost of Breaking Commitments

Keeping our commitments expresses respect. As we do so over time, this ethic becomes a sincere and abiding aspect our personality and presence. We become the person others believe, someone they can count on. Good judgment in making these commitments implies a readiness to make sacrifices, perhaps decline opportunities. The fidelity of our actions cause us to be seen as thoughtful and generous.

When we easily make and break commitments we lose credibility. We reveal ourselves as persons less worthy of trust. And if these are the ways we treat others – if it becomes our de facto norms – well, we shouldn’t be surprised when we receive the same treatment in return. We shouldn’t be surprised when we are taken for granted, and when we’re no longer able to count on one another.  

We need not get moralistic about these matters to see that our judgment and conduct have ethical implications. Actions have consequences. They tell a story about who we are, what we value, about our reliability and maturity. By the time we’re in our 30’s, shouldn’t others expect that we’ve gained greater control over our moods and impulses, that we’re more able to consider others and keep promises. 

The Benefits of Making & Keeping Commitments

Some of the more obvious benefits flow from minimizing the costs of breaking commitments. But that’s the low hanging fruit. Learning how to consistently keep commitments promotes skill development of other kinds. We must consider our strategic priorities and be more intentional. We must, especially as leaders, learn to leverage the capabilities of others. And we must learn to say no. 

These are modes of deliberation, perspective-taking, and prudential judgment that become practiced and intuitive over time. So, to become intelligently intuitive – not the “cheap” version, which is flying by the seat of our pants – we must resist the impulse to make commitments too easily. This processing requires that we also listen and learn from our feelings. It’s not a cold mechanical calculus. 

This is a practical art. By recognizing our need to be selective and discriminating, we cultivate powers of discernment. We listen. We inquire. We feel something – a positive pull or negative aversion, a sense of confusion or hesitancy. We listen to and use these affective data; we don’t react rashly. We take risks but we also learn to differentiate a true crisis and genuine urgency from desperate reactivity. 

Getting it Right 

The practical skills of deliberation and judgment we just examined mark the development of wisdom and maturity. In the language of psychology, these sophisticated, higher-level abilities to organize and order our conduct are called the executive function. Whether or not you play an executive role at work, your executive function will usually explain much of your success. 

What’s interesting is the way cognitive, affective, and interpersonal resources grow and converge to express a mature executive function. This plays out differently in all of us - partly due to differences in temperament and personality. But it is also affected by the social-organizational context within which we take our roles and define our purposes and accountabilities. 

And this brings us full circle to our starting point. Some of us are advantaged in our ability to prudently make commitments and dutifully keep commitments. But these capabilities will be further challenged as we take new roles of responsibility in the course of adult development. Therefore, the task of cultivating executive maturity applies to all of us, and we all have the standard equipment to do it.