Promises are stronger than agreements (extract from our book)

10 okt, 2023
Promises are stronger than agreements (extract from our book)

Promises are different from agreements. They are more committed – but you have to make certain that they are actually promises and not just intentions in disguise. In Promise-Based Execution, good promises share certain characteristics. Among them is the important fact that they are mutual. When employees dedicate themselves to something, their managers must commit to certain behaviors and, preferably, actions as well.


When we talk to managers of companies and organizations about strategy execution, most of them nod when we describe how way too many strategies fail to ever be realized. It is easy enough to spot, and most of us have failed spectacularly at executing a strategy at least once.

When we present a framework built on promises as a way to create Bottom-Up Engagement, managers need to understand the difference between agreements and promises.

Let us return to the commitment ladder. The first rung is an intention. Intentions are fine but hardly something on which to depend. The next step is an agreement. Agreements are better but frequently not very explicit or specific. “I agree” is different from the more dedicated commitment “I promise”. Promises are the last and top rung on the commitment ladder.

• Good promises are founded on personal motivation. As a manager, you must know what makes people tick and what makes them want to deliver. If you dictate rather than motivate, the chances are that employees will be less likely to keep their side of the bargain and will linger on the intention or agreement rungs of the commitment ladder. They will not be fully committed via a strong sense of ownership.

• Good promises are linked to the overall strategy in a meaningful way. The employees can see how their contribution fits into the bigger picture. It is often hard to see how KPIs and other goals that the employee has agreed to are connected to the strategy.

• Promises are between two people, not between departments, branches or units. A promise is a personal commitment. That means the employee is personally accountable. And if the promise is crafted in a clear way with mutual commitment, the employee knows what is expected and what to do if anything changes.

Sull and Spinosa, whom we mentioned earlier, have outlined five characteristics of what makes a good promise: they are public, active, voluntary, explicit and mission based.

Let us look at each of these characteristics.

1) Good promises are public.
When you commit to something publicly, your reputation is at stake. It also means that you can’t pretend you didn’t make the promise. We know from research – and most of us know it from personal experience – that we try to keep the promises we have made in front of others, or which are public in some other way. It also means we can’t pass the buck if we don’t deliver what we promise. We are held accountable.

2) Good promises are active.
We have seen many managers making vague but demanding requests of their employees without any kind of dialogue. The employee may not even see the purpose of the request. A good promise is a handshake, the result of an actual negotiation which can be renegotiated if necessary. Active promises also mean employees are focused on meaningful action rather than mere compliance.

3) Good promises are voluntary.
You will not generate commitment through orders. And the right to say no or suggest an alternative should be real, not just a cliché. If the consequences of saying no are dire, even if they are not stated directly, the volition is postulated rather than real.

4) Good promises are explicit.
Convoluted or abstract promises are difficult to deliver on and easy to get out of. A good promise consists of stating who will do what for whom and by when. Notice that we didn’t write anything about HOW. You want employees to deploy their skills and creativity. The process should also be sufficiently explicit to allow for meaningful follow-up sessions.

5) Good promises are mission-based
Promises should be linked directly to the bigger picture. Not only does this set a clear direction, but it is also more likely to engage and motivate and makes contributions meaningful. You know how you are contributing
and why. To sum up: You articulate WHAT the promise is about; you explain the importance of it (the WHY), and then you ask whether the other person will make that promise. And if not, you ask what it would take to get them to do so, for example, management support, more time or resources.

We would like to add a sixth characteristic of the good promise.

6) Good promises are mutual
We have already discussed what employees promise. What the manager promises is just as important. First of all, you promise to let your staff use their skills, creativity and capabilities to deliver on the promise. The promise is explicit in the WHAT that you set out to achieve. You leave the HOW to the employees, albeit within agreed boundaries (compliance with company policies, ethics, budget, deadline, etc.)

You also promise to support them all the way. You must be somebody they can rely on if things don’t go as planned. You can count on them, but they can also count on you. It is part of the anatomy of the active promise that it can be renegotiated whenever necessary. If you don’t agree with what is proposed, you have to suggest an alternative.

You promise to trust the employees and leave it to them to report back to you when things don’t go as planned rather than monitor them constantly. And you accept that if corrections and major changes are necessary, you may have to negotiate a new promise instead of just piling more requests on them. Remember Rebecca Homkes in Chapter 1 talking about “adaptability to changing circumstances”.

By using promises in an explicit and systematic way, you actively address the organizational friction that occurs in both strategy and business. You don’t know everything, and you can’t foresee everything. But you trust and train employees to deal with it and back them when they need support. You hold each other accountable, and in that way, you introduce a culture of constantly training each other to make greater achievements.


One of the keys to using promises as a way to generate Bottom-Up Engagement is the quality of promises. The employee has to be fully committed. There is a big difference between an automatic ‘sure, boss’ and a solemn promise. In our experience, most agreements land somewhere in between. They are rarely consciously set goals and commitments for which somebody else can hold them accountable.

There may be very good reasons for an employee not to commit strongly. The goal may be well-nigh impossible to reach, in which case the people motivated by achievement will find it unrealistic and think it depends too heavily on chance rather than their efforts. The employees may not find it motivating, perhaps because it is too easy or simply not interesting to them on a personal level.

Another possibility is that the goal is not aligned with other functions for which the employee concerned is responsible. Or perhaps the corporate culture is one in which it doesn’t feel safe to fail or make mistakes, which makes it dangerous to commit fully. Remember the “bad guy” called Mitigated Speech? It implies the risk of people under-promising to make sure that they deliver more than they promised. This may sound like a good thing but what it really means is that your company is not as ambitious and competitive as it could be. You are not unlocking the full potential of your organization. And some people will, of course, feel complacent and only deliver the bare minimum, so you don’t push them too hard the next time.

A word of caution: do not assume too quickly that someone is committed. As Professor Peter Senge of MIT puts it: “90% of the time, what passes for commitment is compliance”. So, obtaining a strong commitment from the employees is a delicate process for managers in any organization. It is a process that requires deep involvement and clear conversations about goal setting at every level of the organization. It is easy to demand that people comply. It takes leadership and people skills to inspire them to commit.

A sense of purpose, confidence, trust and motivation are all key elements in engagement and generating a sense of ownership. When people can see the point of the promise made and how it plays into the bigger picture, and when they feel trusted and motivated, they will climb the commitment ladder.

Just as people can learn to be achievers, they can learn not to be if the corporate culture discourages it.

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40-60% of a company's strategic potential is lost due to poor execution, poor understanding of customer needs or company culture not supporting the ambitions.