What is in the word “yes” when we utter it? In his book The Wisdom and Teachings of Stephen R. Covey, American educator and businessman Stephen R. Covey equates the commitments that individuals make to one another with “emotional bank accounts.” In the same way that we make deposits into a savings account to build a reserve so that we can later make withdrawals for essential needs, an emotional account is funded over time with the amount of trust that is garnered. Thus, a relationship where promises are always maintained would be indicative of two people who have a substantial reserve with one another in their emotional account. The level of trust and “feeling of safeness” between them would be high. When promises are broken and mistakes are made, these are withdrawals that deplete the emotional account. The longer and more trusted the relationship, the more likely the account can sustain incremental withdrawals. The more significant the breach, the larger the withdrawal, which can deplete the account entirely.
John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States, highlighted the implications public statements can have for one’s credibility as a leader, stating, “I would rather be accused of breaking precedents than breaking promises.” Words must be carefully chosen because everything that is spoken will be used as a yardstick in determining success, even if outcomes supersede those of your predecessors. The benchmark is thus not where others failed or succeeded, but on the delivery of what you promised—and during the stated time span. It is for this reason that presidents are rarely credited for the positive outgrowth of their policies that are actualized during their successor’s term. If a leader sets the expectancy level too high and the results do not correspond, she will be perceived as being untrustworthy at best, and at worst, a failure—even if she overcomes many other obstacles. Juxtaposing results and expectations require that leaders underpromise and overdeliver and to only make commitments when they are certain they can deliver at wherever they set the bar.
Of course, the number of commitments that a manager is generally asked to make can sometimes result in her making more promises than she can keep, and as new obligations are accepted, some old commitments might by eclipsed by more recent ones. But what role does Covey’s notion of an “emotional bank account” play in the court organization? To what extent, if any, is a pledge that is stated today by the court manager important or even relevant given the pace of change, which can alter the circumstances upon which those statements were made? Does the changing state of emerging priorities with which leaders are compelled to respond place the idea of making a commitment into a different context?
I parked Toni’s car and walked into the ophthalmologist’s reception area and saw her filling out her medical and insurance information. Toni rarely asks for favors so when she asked if I could drive her to an appointment in the late afternoon on a Friday, I viewed it as starting the weekend a few hours earlier. She was scheduled to have a glaucoma check, and the doctor recommended that someone else drive her vehicle following the appointment.
“Every time I come here, it is without fail,” Toni said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I’ve made two recommendations to Dr. Panarien over the last couple of years and I know that she hasn’t instituted at least one of them.”
“What did you suggest? Something that will make her practice more efficient I’m sure.”
“I wouldn’t have suggested it otherwise. Let me finish filling these same forms out that I’ve already completed umpteen times. In the meantime, why don’t you get us some tea? I’m certain that it’s going to be at least a half hour before I’m called.” She gestured toward a small table on the other end of the waiting room that had been set up for coffee and tea.
The selection was surprisingly vast, but I could tell the water in the thermos was lukewarm as I poured us two cups. “I’ve never had this chocolate chai variety, so I enlisted you to take this adventure with me,” I said.
“I’ve actually had it before—good choice,” she replied as she signed the final acknowledgment and put down the clipboard.
I settled into the chair across from her. “So, what were the million-dollar ideas you suggested?”
“I mentioned to her a while back about using technology to check people in rather than these paper forms. I even recommended the vendor that my physician uses for her office. It’s much easier in retrieving the patient’s file and tracking their history. They hand you a tablet and it’s just a matter of electronically checking off a few boxes if nothing has changed since your last visit. I also suggested how she could abridge wait times by eliminating these hard-copy documents. Her practice reminds me of the Jerry Seinfeld bit about moving from larger waiting rooms to smaller ones—they call it a waiting room because they have every intention of using it to make you wait. Anyway, I mentioned it to her the last two times I was here.”
“Ha. What did she say?”
“She gave me the impression that she appreciated my observations and told me that she was hiring a new office manager and one of the top priorities was to bring the office up-to-date on these new technologies. That was two years ago.”
“I’m guessing that it’s not a big enough issue for you that you’d consider going to a different doctor?”
“No—I’ve been her patient for more than twenty years, and I trust her judgment. Maybe not as an administrator, but in terms of my eye health, she’s second to none. My suggestions were more for her benefit, and I accept that she may have said what she did just to be polite.”
“That’s actually an interesting perspective. I’m trying to say no right now to chairing a committee that I don’t have the time to oversee, but I’m struggling to decline because I don’t want to appear impolite.”
“Do you have a clear choice in the decision?”
“I do. It’s a professional development opportunity that I’d otherwise take on, but I can’t commit to it right now.”
“Then it’s better to be sincere and risk appearing ungracious of the offer by some people than failing to deliver on what you promised to manage and being perceived as untrustworthy.”
“You’re right, Toni. Better to deal with the potential short-term repercussions of saying no today, than the longer-term implications of saying yes.”
“Precisely the point—just as you wouldn’t write me a check in an amount you didn’t have the monies to cover, you have to be very thoughtful about what you agree to act on and accomplish.”
“Because for better or worse the outcome after saying yes will speak volumes about your character. And I’m guessing your initial fickleness won’t make a good defense.”
“Exactly—say what you mean and do what you say. In the end, that’s what will most define you.” Just then the receptionist called Toni into the next waiting room. She glanced at her watch, saw that we were twenty-nine minutes into the appointment, turned to me, and said, “Right on time, as expected.”
If the purposes and responsibilities of the courts are to be fulfilled, managers cannot avoid creating a culture of commitment because of the potential risks to working relationships when promises are not kept. Instead, court managers must work toward developing the organization so that when promises are made, they are agreed to with the seriousness and clarity that is warranted. To ensure that the emotional bank accounts of all employees are replete, promises should be aligned with the four Ds; that is, they should be direct, documented, dynamic, and deliberate. Promises should be made in an open forum and in a transparent manner. When a commitment to spearhead an initiative or address an issue, however minor, is made among peers, the employee is more likely to follow through on it because their reputation for being honest and reliable is at stake. Who is responsible and what they have agreed to address should be documented. Agenda and meeting minutes should be accompanied with an “action list” that enumerates each person and the activity that they agreed to complete by a specified date. When the arrangement is in writing, an individual is less likely to abnegate. Arrangements that are made should have ongoing collaboration so that as priorities shift and circumstances change, any agreement on the deliverables can likewise be modified. And the more of a time commitment that is required, the greater number of regular discussions that should be scheduled so that progress can be monitored, and the end product remains clear. Revisiting the terms of an agreement, while frustrating, can prove critical to the project’s completion.
Management literature cites the “General Motors nod”—a reference to GM employees who would politely rock their head back and forth “yes” to every request—as evidence of a staff that feels compelled to agree to all requests so that they give the impression of being a “good worker.” Research conducted at the University of California in San Francisco, and noted by Travis Bradberry in his book Emotional Intelligence 2.0,shows that individuals who have difficulty saying no are more likely to experience stress, apathy, and even depression because it truncates their self-control. Bradberry submits that emotionally intelligent people do not mollify an unwillingness or inability to do something with responses such as “I don’t think I can” or “I’m not certain.” The discipline to say no assures that the time and energy required for prior commitments are not compromised. Saying “no” requires an honest assessment of what current commitments are owed and underscores the importance of managing them effectively. And as challenges materialize and obligations become more burdensome, staff are less likely to follow through on a promise that they were not personally responsible for making at the outset. Individuals should have the opportunity to exercise reasonable discretion in the terms of the assignments they will be responsible for so that they are more apt to take ownership of its outcomes.
To say yes in response to overseeing a project or addressing an issue translates into a pledge for which the manager’s reputation is at stake. This is true irrespective of whether that was the intention (or if she was cognizant of that fact) at the time she made the statement. Small unfulfilled promises over a period of time can have the same adverse effect on her reputation as defaulting on a large-scale project or performance objective. When there is a choice, it must be perpended considering the following questions: What needs to be done to meet the needs of the request? Who must be involved and to what extent does this coordination impact the expected outcome? What interest does it serve in the short and long-term to take this on? What is the time commitment on how quickly it can be accomplished? What resources need to be expended in achieving the objective?
Yes—the one-word response that is far easier to state than it is to live up to has far-reaching implications. That word is the gateway to a promise and can quickly undermine trust when they are broken. To that end, promises should not be made in a cavalier manner such that when the manager nods yes, there is a confidence that she will follow through and live up to the commitment. And in those rare and unpredictable instances when circumstances change, she must explain how those things necessitated her to make an alternate decision. A court manager certainly cannot account for all possible contingencies to keep every single promise once it is made, but a good rule of thumb is to make as few commitments as necessary and to monitor those that are made through completion. The manager can think what she would like to do, but once it’s uttered, then it’s a matter of ensuring that it gets done.
And those are just some of my musings on management.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Giuseppe M. Fazari has been musing about management concepts and practices throughout his career as an administrator, consultant, and academic. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.