Integrity, and Cleaning Up


So many of the issues I see in business, and in life, are caused by the violation of a single principle; one, that if it were really adhered to relentlessly, would change the world. It’s so simple to understand, and quite easy to practice when you know how. When followed, it makes life easier, better, more predictable, and more enjoyable, and less stressful.

It is this: Honor your word. And when you can’t, clean up the mess.

I first heard it put quite this way when I went to work for ITX (Thanks, Ralph). My Dad used to say, “If you say it, do it.” When I was a kid, I played Pop Warner football. While I was an OK athlete, I was small, and as I got older the other other kids got bigger and faster than I, and I started getting knocked around pretty good on the field. After one particularly physical game, I told Dad I wanted to quit football and play soccer.

Dad said, “You started a season, and you’re going finish it. Not because I want to see you get hurt, but because you made a commitment to your team.” That was one of my first lessons in integrity and accountability. I finished the football season and then switched to soccer the following Fall.

So what does in mean to honor your word? In my world of working with clients directly, and even in the larger business world and in life, it means cultivating the ability to understand someone’s need, be it a client or team member or family member, and making a reasonable and agreed upon commitment to provide something of value (a deliverable, task completion, a group of tasks, or whatever) to meet that need by an agreed upon deadline.

To take Dad’s decree one step further, “do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it.”

But what happens when you can’t do what you promised?

Your Word Is Your Word, Especially Early

First, let’s not split hairs. “I said I would but I didn’t PROMISE!” Really?

Did you say you would do something? Then do it, or clean up the mess. Not everything you say is a blood oath, but your ability to be trusted rises and falls with your track record of keeping your word.

This is especially true in new relationships. Think of it this way, if you miss on two of your first four commitments to a new client, that’s a 50% miss rate. If you fail on two of your first 40 commitments, you have some trust built up in the bank, as long as you handle those misses properly and with integrity.

Secondly, life is messy. Sometimes, that is, a small portion of the time, circumstances change, or we err in judgement, or as organized as we are, we forget about the other more important thing we promised.

Sometimes, we can’t do what we said we would do. At that point, it’s time to clean up the mess.

Get The Mop

First, here’s a difference between “can’t,” and “don’t want to,” and “still could, but it’s now impractical, or could cause harm, or there is some other mitigating factor.” This is where integrity is tested. When you can, do, unless there’s a damn good reason not to. When you just don’t want to, and it’s still the right thing to do, do it.

Secondly, the minute you realize you can’t fulfill a commitment, let the other party know as early as possible. Don’t wait. Raising the issue as early as possible gives the other party notice, time to digest, and time to make accommodations. And make sure you directly communicate with the party to whom you made the commitment, not their boss, underling, sister, cousin, etc.

Don’t Just Present A Problem

But don’t just let them know you can’t. Can’t is a problem. Be better. Always with a problem and a solution, like, “Honey, I can’t pick up the dry cleaning on the way home because I now have to meet Jim at 5:00, but I can get it tomorrow. Does that work?” Or, “Mr. or Ms. Client, we’re not going be able to deliver the [deliverable] because our designer is out sick. We can have our other designer do the work, and we can deliver it to you Friday. Does that work?”

“Does that work” gives the other party a chance to have input and gain alignment with you. If “that doesn’t work,” then the dialogue continues until an agreed upon “re-promise” is reached.

Even if Friday doesn’t work, raising the issue early gives Mr. or Ms. Client the ability to digest and collaborate with you to come to an agreement. Maybe it’s not an issue. Maybe Mr. or Ms. Client can juggle on their end and make it work. There are a dozen possibilities, but if you wait to the last minute to raise the issue, there is only one possibility: pissing off Mr. or Ms. Client.

Or Mrs. Wife. Or Mr. Husband.

None of us are perfect. Life happens. Everyone in your life, and every partner you work with, will occasionally make a mess. But we can still earn and build trust by setting and keeping commitments with a high degree of integrity, and cleaning up the mess properly when we can't.