Promises, Promises (2014)

The Pledge of the Sheriff

A worried sheriff's face (Jack Nicholson, The Pledge)

In the movie The Pledge (2001), directed by Sean Penn, a weary police chief, played by Jack Nicholson, investigates the murder of a young child. In the pivotal scene, on the day of his retirement, he promises the mother of the murdered girl to find the killer.

The sheriff gradually goes to extremes to fulfil his promise. He dedicates all his time to the case. He moves to a small town in the mountains, where he suspects the murderer could be found. The pledge he made propels him to forsake everything else. His mental health starts to decay. The guilt and shame of the unfulfilled promise lie heavily on his shoulders.

This movie reveals how incredibly powerful a promise can be, even today. Human beings can become very preoccupied in their quest to fulfil a promise.

Enter the Heavy-Hitters

Promises are intimately connected to trust. Assume your company has stumbled on a promise and treated a customer badly and you’re assigned to the case. The customer’s trust in your company is low. Now, assume you solve the problem and get back immediately to the customer with the good news. Trust in your company is restored, perhaps even higher than before. But what would have happened if you hadn’t returned to the customer? The trust would have fallen rapidly. A couple of broken promises and an entire relationship could be in danger.

Trust in turn is a kind of capital. Trust governs business deals and stock markets. Trust creates freedom to move and is fertile soil for collaboration. In Swedish, my native language, there is a word: “förtroendekapital”, literally translated as “trust capital”, which I’ll use here.

So, promises have strong associations to some serious heavy-hitters, trust and capital. This makes promises an interesting object of study.

The Oath of The Phantom

I swear to devote my life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice, in all their forms! [1]

The 1st Phantom swearing the oath

The oath of the Phantom has been sworn by every Phantom through the ages. This promise does not merely steer one man’s life, but also his son’s life, and his son’s, and so on – all the way from 1536! Powerful stuff, indeed.

But herein lies a mystery: The Phantom, unlike the policeman in The Pledge, feels really good about himself. They have both made strong promises for good causes, but the sheriff spirals downward towards insanity and the Phantom enjoys family bliss with a hot UN officer.


The Purpose of Promises

Promises may seem self-evident and a natural part of life to most people. I mean, how practical would life be if we couldn’t rely on each other? I would like to challenge this. Perhaps promises aren’t necessary in all situations where we use them today? Specifically, do we need promises in business?

To answer this, we need to think about the purpose of promises. For what do we use promises?

Multiple things, it turns out. As you might have gathered already, promises can be used for increasing trust in yourself or what you represent, at least temporarily. Already when the promise is given, your “trust capital” increases. People that promise things are simply deemed a little more trustworthy, which sales people know well.

A promise may also function as a means of synchronisation between two or more collaborating parties, e.g. a product release with a corresponding ad campaign. The promise signals to each part that they may start directing their work towards a common, envisioned future, where the promises will be fulfilled.

Finally, promises can increase motivation and inspire people. In 1961 President Kennedy said he believed his country should set as a goal the “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” by the end of the decade. This was a very inspiring promise and we all know the successful outcome [2].

But do we really need promises for these purposes? I believe, no. There are many means of increasing trust, most of them smarter than desperately promising things. Having good relationships and offering full transparency are two. Synchronisation by promise is only needed at a physical or mental distance from each other. We can turn this around. If we increase transparency and collaborate intimately there is no need for promises. Finally, there are hundreds of ways that people find motivation. Given the right circumstances people motivate themselves. An inspiring vision, the feeling of doing actual good, getting unexpected praise are just a few examples.

Apparently, in many situations where we typically resort to promising, there are practical alternatives for achieving the same purpose.

If promises aren’t entirely necessary, this implies we have a choice. This leads us to the thought that promising is a tool, a communication tool, and just like any tool there are suitable situations to use it – and less suitable.

A consequence of this insight is this: You don’t need to promise in all situations where it is expected of you. You have the right to choose your tools. A professional chooses her tools depending on the situation and today we all need to be communication professionals.

Risky Business

What would be a suitable situation for promising? Considering the risks, anything from a drop in reputation to complete madness, I think the following, minimal, criteria should be fulfilled, at least for me to be able to promise:

  1. The promise is given for a clear and sensible purpose. For example, synchronising business activities with an external part,
  2. I have exhausted all better options, for example, a higher degree of collaboration, and
  3. There is a very high probability of me being able to fulfil the promise without damaging myself, my friends, colleagues or loved ones.

In business, one might assume that this would be the normal way that most people treat promises, but this is not the case in my experience. Promises are generously given without much deliberation and quite frequently expected back.

In a typical enterprise hierarchy, promises function like a rudimentary form of delegation, making the subordinate accountable for the outcome, freeing the superior of involvement and, perhaps more importantly, of blame. The promises cascade down the chain-of-command in a kind of promise chain, only this chain is as fragile as glass.

The use of promises is so ingrained that sometimes communications that really aren’t promises are taken as such. Estimates of technical undertakings is one example. We all know open and honest communication around risks is beneficial between business partners, but in this case this is undermined every time an estimate (a forecast) is misconstrued as a promise and used against people. This, ironically, destroys the will to speak honestly.

Just like in The Pledge, peculiar behaviour starts to emerge in an enterprise when someone, at some point, looks someone in the eyes and promises something they aren’t entirely certain of. “Yes Sir, trust me, we’ll deliver.” After this, fulfilling the promise becomes more important than the success of the company in the long run, a form of sub-optimisation. Many times have I witnessed balanced, sharp, experienced people act ruthlessly or even bizarrely due to promises. Promises can be destructive for relationships and put people under psychological pressure. To a person unaware of the destructive promise, things may look even more strange and irrational, since they don’t understand the underlying reason.

Promising Like a Pro

If you find yourself in a situation where you need to promise, how would you do that in the least destructive way? Again, an example might illustrate: Imagine you have booked a carpenter for some task in your house. Over the phone you both agree to meet Tuesday morning. This is a promise, right? On Tuesday morning, staying home from work, he calls you from a completely different location saying he can’t make it. Are you happy? Would you do business with that firm again? It appears this wasn’t a brilliant promise.

This is a shame because it was unnecessary. The promise could easily have looked like this instead:

“OK, I have scheduled your house for Tuesday morning. I should inform you that we are fully booked until then, which means there are some risks of delay. I promise I will contact you immediately if anything happens that might jeopardise the appointment.”

This is a promise the carpenter has good chance of fulfilling and it sound quite reasonable and professional to me as a customer. Please note that the two situations above are completely similar except for how the promise was given.

So why did the second promise work better than the first? My take on it is this: The first promise was about an outcome, the second about behaviour.


A Promise Model

A simple way of promising skilfully is only to promise things we have good control over. There aren’t many things in life that fits the bill, but there is one thing: Our own behaviour. If you really need to promise things, promise aspects of your own behaviour.

As soon as we start giving promises about results, even our own, the world starts interfering. “Sorry boss, I would have written that document, but then we got that bug and I needed to…” Even promises for your own deliveries are risky [3].

When we start promising aspects of other people’s behaviour we are entering unsuitable or even unethical territory. “Yes teacher, Peter will practice the tuba a lot more from now on, right Peter?” My view is that this is unethical because it’s not our life to make promises about. We have no business strictly controlling other people’s choices – even our kids.

Finally, promising other people’s results is both risky and unsuitable. It’s the most destructive kind of promise. There is a high probability that many people’s lives will be negatively affected by that type of promise, including your own. Tragically, this is the most common form of promise in business [4]. Please abstain.


Now we are in a position to better understand why the police chief in The Pledge felt so bad and The Phantom so great. The sheriff had given a promise of a certain outcome, that he would find the killer. That was a risky promise. The oath of The Phantom is about how he wants to dedicate his life fighting evil, in other words his behaviour. This promise is acceptable, because with determination, he could achieve it.

My advice is to minimise promising. Promises are dangerous, dangerous things that have the potential of causing serious confusion, distress, and psychological violence in your organisation. There are better alternatives. I suggest you look at promises like razor-sharp tools that you keep hidden away, strapped safely at the bottom of your tool box.


[1] The oath has been shortened in the article. The full oath continuous “… My sons and their sons shall follow me.” That part is actually a promise of other people’s behaviour, the sons of the original Phantom. This might explain the struggles of many modern Phantoms, trying to get out of the mental chains their ancestor provided with just a few, fatal words (and a skull).

[2] It is interesting to note that President Kennedy did not actually pledge anything. He only said he “believed the country should set as a goal..”, which is something quite different. That made him not accountable to fulfil the promise, yet it was perceived as a pledge for the whole country. Pretty clever.

[3] In the domain of agile software development with Scrum, teams are often pushed to commit to small deliveries each sprint (short time period). This has proven quite destructive and we can see why now. One way teams have coped with that is to modify the commitment to “do our best to complete the delivery”, a behavioural promise.

[4] This typically involves sales people promising the completion of some task, project or delivery at a certain date by other people in their organisation.

3 thoughts on “Promises, Promises (2014)

  1. Pingback: The tyranny of project management | David Hartmann

  2. Hi Joakim,

    This is a very deep post on human nature – and on why and how we should avoid promising outcomes and focus on promising behaviors (if we ever we need to make a promise).

    I would really like to republish this post on PM Hut where many project managers will benefit from it. Please either email me or contact me through the contact us form on the PM Hut site in case you’re OK with this.

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