Commitment. The word alone strikes fear in the hearts of many, probably up there with spiders, heights, and public speaking. Unfortunately (unlike spiders and heights, at least), your lack of commitment hurts you. Commitments matter. Failing to commit, or failure to follow through on commitments breaks trust, wastes time, and can create major headaches for other people. Here’s how your lack of commitment hurts you, and what you can do about it.

The Consequences of Not Committing

When we break a commitment, won’t commit in the first place, or are fuzzy with our commitments, we impact other people. Unless you’re self-employed and never have to deal with other people (like, ever), people need to be able to rely on you (and vice-versa). Let’s look at some examples:

  • You commit to a deadline for a quarterly report but don’t meet it. Now, your boss is under pressure because they needed the information to present to their boss. They are faced with throwing you under the bus or covering for you and taking the hit.
  • You commit to helping out with a job, but are quite late or don’t show up at all. Other people initially wait for you, which wastes time.
  • A colleague asks for help on an important project, but there aren’t many people she can ask. You say you’ll get back to her, but never do. She’s faced with the awkwardness of either asking you again or scrambling because she needs now to find someone else. Meanwhile, in the black hole of waiting for you to respond, she’s now in more of a time When you don’t show up soon, they have to pick up the slack because they planned on you being there.

Of course, accountability is never completely one-sided. However, if your goal is to be a better leader, it’s crucial to clean up your side of the street and take ownership of your behavior. In this case, that means making commitments and following through with them. When we don’t, other people end up bearing the burden. If we don’t commit to something we commit to nothing, and committing to nothing means everyone pays the price of mediocrity.

The Three Levels of Commitment

For many people, commitment is an all-or-nothing, black-or-white proposition. This is part of what can be scary about making commitments. However, commitment doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s look at three different levels of commitment that we can choose from:

  1. Commit to Not Committing
    Even though we’re not making any grand promises, committing to not committing is a huge step up from committing to nothing. Actually, there is a lot of integrity and clarity behind intentionally not committing, because it gives other people more choices right up front. For example, if someone makes a request and you let them know that you can’t commit at this time, they are then free to make other plans.
  2. Commit to Something
    Instead of going all in, consider something you can commit to and start there. Start to notice the shades of gray. Perhaps you know you only have time to take on a section of the report for your boss, that you only have one hour instead of five to help out on a job, or are only available to consult with your colleague for 30 minutes. Being clear about what you can commit to again communicates clarity and integrity.
  3. Fully Commit
    Of course, you can always choose to fully commit. The caveat for choosing to fully commit is being confident that you’ll be able to follow through and make good on your promise. Which leads us to the next point …

Think Before Committing

Before making any commitment, assess what you can realistically commit to. If you’ve got a full plate, don’t take on a huge job. If you know there’s a chance that you’ll be late for something, think about what time you could realistically be there and commit to that time.

More than anything, it’s the communication around your commitment that matters. No matter how large or small the commitment, let people know exactly what you’re committing to, and by when. Trust is easy to break, but hard to fix. Broken commitments result in broken trust, which will impact your reputation, credibility, and opportunities. Consider your reputation, values, and goals as a leader, and ask yourself both how you want to be seen and how you want to impact the people in your life.

It’s OK to Say No

Lastly, it’s OK to say no. It’s perfectly acceptable (and healthy) to take care of yourself and set boundaries. Commitments aren’t always about other people. Sometimes it’s about making a commitment to yourself and your own needs, wants, and abilities. Again, clear communication is key. If you commit to yourself, let others know that when appropriate.

One last thing. Life happens. We can’t control everything. There are times when we can’t follow through on our commitments for various reasons. In these instances, communication is once again key. Let people know when things change as soon as possible. So long as it doesn’t turn into a pattern, renegotiating a commitment based on new conditions or circumstances preserves integrity and clarity in your relationships. Few commitments are forever, so as long as you’re not making those in your daily life (especially at work), re-commit when needed. What you can commit to matters – a little something is better than a lot of nothing.