Requests & Promises: Making A Promise You Can't Keep Is Worse Than Saying No (Part 2 of 2)

Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here

Throughout any digital transformation change two very simple things are critical to enabling your team and getting buy-in during your journey.


These two things are the art of making requests, and the power of keeping your promises.

In part one of this series, I offered some insight into how to make effective requests of your team. This article will explore the other side of the request, which is the subsequent agreement through a promise to keep it.

I had to request a lot from my team, in often quite difficult circumstances.

Requests and Promises are indelibly linked. One cannot drive the effective new action needed in digital transformation without both.

As I mentioned in my last article, my company has gone through some big change over the last 18 months. The biggest being the reduction in staff. We knew we would have to shift from a 60 person team to a team of less than 10. During that time I had to request a lot from my team, in often quite difficult circumstances.

My process of getting the team on board would (more often than not), go something like this:
1) Simplifying my message down to one clear action that could be bought into.
2) Providing the team with a vision of the outcome, should we succeed in that action.
3) Taking into consideration the level of competence around the action required, I would expand as much as I felt necessary to demonstrate what was needed.

And I have to say my PowerPoint presentations around this were awesome. I would craft them beautifully and use imagery to help get the point home. (Just blowing my own trumpet here).

Then finally, at the end of the meeting, I would ask: "What does everyone think?"

Usually at this point comes a long silence until one persona pipes up (I'm not naming names here, but it's usually always the same one or two people) and they say how they love it and we must do it to move the company forward.

So then I ask my next question: "Is everyone onboard?"

To which I get a nod of heads and some yes's and woop's from the more vocal contingent.

Then what happens, in terms of action?


Or worse still, some reluctant action for a week or so, until the muttering starts and I get annoyed about how I'm the only one committed to moving the company forward.

I also start to feel let down, resentful and distrustful. Not a healthy position to be in.

So what the hell is happening here?

Basically, I'm making the cardinal mistake of requesting without ensuring a true promise is being made back to me.

A “true promise” is committing to do what someone has asked you to do. But it implies that you have fully understood the request and, equally as important, that you have the capability to do what is being requested.

So before your team makes a promise to one of your requests, you need to ensure the following conditions. Without them, don't expect them to do what you are asking of them. Saying yes to one of your requests is as much your responsibility as it is theirs:

  1. Ensure they understand the request by getting them to repeat it back to you. A nodding head is not enough.

  2. Look for signs of sincerity in body language and tone of voice. Were my team really saying yes to me or were they saying yes because I’m the boss and it's what I want to hear?

  3. Do they really have the competency and capability to keep the promise? I might be asking my team to do completely new things that require completely new skills. Do they have them?

  4. Are they reliable to do what they have said they will do? In my example above I need to ensure I am taking into account the context of their situation when a request is made. There were potential redundancies hanging over some peoples head, this impacts them profoundly, irrespective of how nice or great the culture might be. Would my team be reliable to make a change that will ultimately put them out of a job?

We have to remember that requests and promises are a conversation, not a one-way push of information and a yes response. It requires full understanding, which in turn opens up possibility which ultimately can drive action.

Having said all of this, it's not always easy. Many cultures don't allow for people to say no or to re-negotiate what is being asked of them. It's critically important as leaders driving digital transformation that we create the right culture that allows for our teams to negotiate or reject requests.

Remember making a promise you can't keep is worse than saying no.

Mike Perk is the CEO of WWC, a digital transformation agency based in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Email Mike directly here or connect with him on LinkedIn here