Say What You'll Do; Do What You Say

Tuesday, April 5, 2016 - 19:58
A person rock climbing up a steep mountain.

One of the most powerful ways to build trust is the simple-but-not-easy process of making and keeping commitments. It's simple because it only takes two steps: you make a commitment and then you make it happen. It's difficult because it's incredibly easy to overcommit one's capacity, overestimate one's skillset, and overstate one's desire to see it through to completion. In fact, the asymmetric nature of the two steps almost makes it inevitable that some agreements will be broken or renegotiated to something more realistic. Example: if someone asks you to volunteer to help out a charity event, saying "yes" literally takes a second but the actual activity itself may consume an entire weekend in addition to many man hours of prep work leading up to the event. Without an accurate inventory of all your previous commitments and an accurate sense of the time, skill, and motivation required to make good on the promise, it's all too easy to bail out for a variety of reasons.

Personally, this is something I struggle with on a daily basis. I'm interested in so many things. I love to participate. I love to get things done. I'm in love with the idea that I can achieve anything in record time because I have high standards and expectations for myself. But I fall short. Often. And when it happens the sting can permeate my thoughts and emotions and undermine my self-confidence. It's in these moments that a key choice must be made in evaluating the gap between the commitment and the result. Either the performance was truly subpar, or the target was unrealistic. The latter can easily fall into the category of self-rationalization, but done correctly it can be empowering. It puts one in control to set more realistic goals and/or fewer of them, thereby increasing ones focus and changes of meeting the expectation.

The first time this lesson hit home for me was during a company orientation meeting for a summer internship at GE as part of their Early Identification Program (EIP). A gentleman that I no longer remember said that the best piece of advice he had to succeed in the organization was to adopt the following mantra: "Say What You'll Do; Do what You Say." It took a while to sink in, but I never forgot the power of that statement. Whenever I made good on a promise, no matter how small, there was a sense of victory of having met or exceeded the goal. Conversely, whenever I fell short, even if it was barely, there was always a sense that I missed a mark. Now this doesn't mean aim low so that you can always meet a target, which is a recipe for mediocrity! A better strategy is to build off the previous success, momentum, and self-confidence by taking on bigger and bigger tasks each time until you start to fall short consistently. That is when you're at the threshold of your ability to make and keep commitments. It's there that you can focus your attention and effort so that you're still growing and expanding while making good on your promises and maintaining a high degree of trust with yourself and others.

I've used this phrase many times at work for those eager to take on more responsibility. In many cases, I may not have worked with a person long enough to know what their capacity and capabilities truly are. But if they can consistently commit and deliver on said commitments, I'm more than willing to trust them more and continue to delegate more and more until they reach a point where things start falling through the cracks. Even if they are begging me for more things to do, I know from experience that we all have our limits. And from my perspective, I prefer the certainty of 5 things getting done to completion versus the uncertainty of someone taking on 10 tasks and returning with a mixed bag of results that might require a lot of my time to sort through. And it's not just about me. I constantly try to pushback and not make commitments unless I absolutely have to, because I know all too well what it feels like to be on the oppositive side of that conversation. It destroys trust, even if that person knows you have the best of intentions.

In summary, the advice is simple: Say What You'll Do; Do What You Say. If you do more of this in your life, I can guarantee that you'll boost your self-confidence while getting others to trust you a heck of a lot more.

PS. I've briefly touched on this topic before (see "Advice That Stuck: Professional Development"), but I feel so strongly about it that it warranted a deeper analysis.

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: Chief Product Officer of DRUD Tech. Author of Winning the Lottery Within. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.