Executive Careers Blog

Can Your Employees Trust You?

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You and I make promises every day. "I'll call you by 5 pm," you say, or, "I'll get you the info by Friday."

But then we get sidetracked.

That's a broken promise.

I almost blew a major deal recently due to a broken promise.

We'd sold our house—the close was later that morning—and the buyers, a young couple, just needed to do their final inspection.

We'd already moved out, so I shouldn't have even been there, but I had a few things to clean up, and a few things to give the buyers.

One was a long aluminum ladder, in perfect condition, except that every time I placed it against the house, or took it down, it tried to fall on my head. I hated the ladder.

There was also an extra refrigerator. I liked the frig, mainly because it never fell on my head.

And, dead or alive, the frig was worth at least $50. That's what NSTAR, the electric company, pays you; then they haul it away for free.

I don't know why they do that, but I also don't understand electricity. Does electricity require vast quantities of broken refrigerators?

When the buyers showed up, I wished them well, and was headed to my car—suddenly, the husband came running out.

"Hey," he said, "where's the bookcase?"

We'd sold the buyers some furniture, including a $20 bookcase. We'd also donated some furniture to charity. I suddenly realized a bad thing: the charity had, accidentally, taken the bookcase.

"I'm so sorry," I said, and explained what had happened.

Then I made a mistake. "I wonder if we could just swap the bookcase for the refrigerator?" Seemed reasonable, $20 for $50.

"How do we even know the refrigerator works?" said the husband. You could feel the trust evaporating rapidly.

"Works fine," I told him, "but even if it breaks, you'll still get $50.” I explained NSTAR.

The husband looked incredulous, like I was making the whole thing up. "It's obvious," his look implied, "that you know nothing about electricity."

"I really wanted that bookcase," he said.

So I wrote a check for $20, then left.

"I can't believe the husband did that," said our real estate agent when I called her later. I agreed.

But I was wrong. I had promised the bookcase, then broken my promise. A promise isn't rational (let's trade $20 for $50). A promise is emotional.

It's your word.

Tip: The fastest way to build trust is to make promises, then keep them. And the fastest way to destroy trust is to do the opposite.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com),  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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