Clean up that mess

Integrity is such a big word. It’s the most common value people and organizations cite as “table stakes,” a have-to-have. We want to have it, we want those around to have it, we want our organizations to have it. It’s hard to live up to, especially when we’re challenged and our emotions get the better of us, and our blind spots can get in the way.

One aspect of integrity has been on my mind lately. The making and keeping of “promises.” Not the obvious ones, the ones that we might not even be aware of or don’t think matter. This first surfaced for me decades ago when I read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and it hit my radar recently when I read The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership (“15 Commitments”).


They’re just little things. Nothing big. They happen all the time:

“I’ll call you tomorrow.” Then the day gets away and you don’t.

“I’ll take care of it.” Then you forget.

“I’ll stop by the grocery store on the way home.” Then you’re too tired, or it’s crowded and you blow it off.

You ask a member of your team on a Friday to get an urgent presentation done by Monday. She delivers it first thing Monday morning and you don’t look at it for days. She skipped a hike with a friend over the weekend to get it done.

And a couple of organizational constants — showing up late to meetings. This comes up all the time. Being chronically late to meetings creates feelings of disrespect for people that registers measurably on their personal Richter scale. Ditto with deadline misses.

These small things matter. If breaches are rare, trust is strong so the pinprick won’t be a big deal. If we do these things regularly, even when people understand we are busy, it breaks trust. And it can be so subtle we don’t know it.

Messy Agreements

15 Commitments shines light on what makes for messy agreements, and how to clean them up — sort of a Marie Kondo for making and keeping promises.

We don’t wake up in the morning eager to get out there and let someone down. So what’s behind messy agreements? Maybe it’s not clear what the agreement actually is, it’s either too vague or each side understands it differently: “I thought you…”, “No, I thought you…”, “That’s not what we agreed to!” It could be that you’re not really committed — you don’t want to but you don’t say no. Or you decide to blow it off and assume no one will notice, you put it on the bottom of your to-do list and never get to it, you meant to do it and just forgot, or you just plain have too much to do.

Cleaning up is straightforward — it pretty much just takes awareness and intention, consciousness:

1. Make clear agreements. (Who’s doing what by when? Only agree when you are committed.)

2. Keep them

3. If you realize you can’t keep an agreement, say so and reset. Agree on a new date or change it.

4. If you didn’t do what you said you were going to, own it, apologize sincerely, and agree on the go-forward.

If you’re crazy-busy and struggling with a personal system that will keep you on track, 15 Commitments and many of my clients recommend the methods in David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

Cleaning up my own room

I’ve been working on cleaning up my little messes. I still have a ways to go — I think I went from about a 6 to maybe an 8. Funny thing is that when I started to pay attention to the little things I promised and worked to make good on them, it had a big impact on... me! I felt good. Better. Proud. Lighter. I had been unconsciously feeling the discomfort of my messes. I’ve also cut down on micro white lies, “I can’t, I’m busy” type auto-responses that might not be totally true, which has further lightened my load. And, the agreements are not just with others — I’ve cleaned up the promises I make to myself. I did finally make that appointment to see the dentist!

In the words of the late Steven Covey, “the quickest way to build trust: make a promise and keep it. Don't over-promise and don't under-deliver. Only say what you are willing to do.”

Sunday Morning Reflection

Got messes? On a scale of 1 to 10, where are you? Where do you want to be? What’s your plan for cleaning up?

Sunday Morning: 119