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.
© Copyright 2012 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
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Meet the Jobs Docs
Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
Cindy Atoji Keene is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years experience. E-mail her directly here.
Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.
Stu Coleman, a partner and general manager at WinterWyman, manages the firm's Financial Contracting division, and provides strategic staffing services to Boston-area organizations needing Accounting and Finance workforce solutions and contract talent.
Tracy Cashman is a partner and the general manager of the Information Technology search division at WinterWyman. She has 20 years of experience partnering with clients in the Boston area to conduct technology searches in a wide variety of industries and technology.
Paul Hellman is the founder of Express Potential, which specializes in executive communication skills. He consults and speaks internationally on how to capture attention & influence others. Email him directly here.