When is a Promise not a Promise?

I spend a lot of my time supporting the development of cultures of accountability. A place where people do what they say when they say they will. Along this line, I have noticed that more and more organizations have taken a new approach on how they work with their customers and suppliers. It used to be when a company, through its people, made an agreement with a customer or supplier, you could count on it. The change that I see is organizations believe that they can unilaterally modify the promises they make to either of these two groups without consequence.

A few examples from my traveling experience. Recently, all the airlines in the U.S. announced they were charging $25 per bag checked for every bag after the first one. Previously, the policy had been there was no charge for the first two bags.  I understand how an airline may want to change their policy; however, how can they apply this to customers who have already purchased tickets? After all, when I bought my ticket the policy was two free bags, yet when I check in for my flight the new rules are applied. If I change my mind and say I don’t like these new rules, I can’t get a refund of my ticket So, the airlines have chosen to operate with one set of rules for themselves and one for their customers.

 Another travel example. I recently showed up at a car rental counter to retrieve a car that I reserved. The response was, “sorry we don’t have any cars and neither do any of the other car rental companies.” I was asked if I could just take a taxi to my destination and they would reimburse me for the cost. I thought about this. I made a promise to rent the car. They made a promise to provide the car, yet they feel their promise is conditional. It would be like me returning the car and saying, you know I can’t pay you now, I know you’ll understand.

 Now an example as a supplier. I received a phone call from the purchasing department of a Fortune 500 company. They were calling to tell me that an edict was issued by the senior leadership of the company that all suppliers like me would be paid 15 days after previously agreed. It was told this policy was to be effective immediately. When I made an agreement to supply services to this company they asked me to promise a price for these services and they promised to pay for them within 45 days. Now they say they can unilaterally change that, yet I can’t change my price. By the way this is from a company who says they operate with uncompromising integrity.


The list goes on and on, and I am sure you have plenty of examples of your own. The question is, “what to do when this happens?” My first reaction is often a bit of fire. When that happens, I know that this reaction is not very useful. Sure, I know it’s not fair. What is important to me is to support a change in how people view accountability and integrity.

What I have decided to do is to engage the person who is communicating with me in one of these situations in a manner that helps them see the disparity. I also will write to the leadership of the organization to raise their awareness of the consequence of their actions and plant a seed for change. More important than any of this is what I will do with myself.

I have found that when I react to something with anger, there is something going on in me that I can’t see. In the case of being out of integrity or not being accountable, I can find instances where I did not honor what I promised. I sometimes try to change my agreements without owning that it might produce a consequence for the other person. I can really see where this happens in my family, where I “have to change my travel plans due to business reasons” and there is a consequence for my wife or children.

The most important step is, as Mohandas Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.


Until later,



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