How to do what you promise at work

In the old days, they would have said: “my word is my bond”..., if I promise to do something, I will do it.

These days, we talk about "self-accountability".

The language may have changed over the years, but its importance has not.

Self-accountability, doing what you promise, shapes your reputation - which in turn defines your career.

So how do we develop or increase our self-accountability?

According to Gretchen Rubin, people differ in their natural response to being set tasks by other people. She describes four categories, which she calls the Four Tendencies:

(Do the quiz to find out which you are.)

Doing what you say you will is a cornerstone of a successful career.

Here are five steps to help you develop or increase your self-accountability.

1. Make sure what is being promised or agreed is absolutely clear

Use this formula: who is going to do what by when.

Clarify exactly what product is required: a verbal brief; a letter; a report; a spreadsheet, a presentation?

And clarify the overall objective of the task: to inform, to persuade, to understand? This will affect what you deliver.

Ideally, keep a written record - either meeting minutes or at the very least an email confirming the task and its deadline.

Don’t leave room for confusion about expectations!

2. Don’t overpromise

It’s very tempting just to say yes.

But if you are snowed under with a huge deadline coming up, don’t agree to take on more work - you could end up disappointing both sets of stakeholders.

Instead, negotiate: “I know this task is really important, but I just can’t give it the time it deserves until Monday. Will that be OK?”

It’s much better to complete something early or better, than submit it late, or do a botched job because you’re rushing.

3. Plan the task delivery time

Where most people go wrong is in underestimating how long it will take to do something.

Instead, plan your task working backwards from the deadline, factoring getting approval/ comments from other people etc.

(No-one likes to be asked for feedback within the hour…)

And you might be surprised how long certain pieces of work actually take. It’s always better to overestimate than underestimate.

Keep a record of time taken, so you can plan more accurately in the future.

4. Keep yourself on track

It’s good practice to review your progress at the end of every day, and plan your priorities for tomorrow.

Use this time to double-check whether you are progressing in accordance with your delivery plan, or slipping behind.

Do you need to do things differently tomorrow to get back on track?

And never leave it all to the last minute! You can guarantee that’s when a key person will be off sick, or the computer will break.

Nothing is more stressful than willing a machine to print faster because you’re over your submission deadline…

5. Deal with self-sabotage

If you’re an Upholder or an Obliger, you should be fine - you are good at fulfilling tasks set by other people.

If you’re a Questioner or a Rebel, it can be harder.

So work out what’s in it for YOU. That’s what motivates you.

Your reputation will either be enhanced, or suffer. Your performance feedback will either be good, or less so. This may affect your salary or bonus.

Find your WHY, and act on that basis.

And that’s it - five steps to self-accountability.

Remember: your self-accountability shapes your reputation. And, as Warren Buffet said...

One final thought: the holy grail of self-accountability is to apply it to tasks you set yourself, not just tasks you promise or agree with other people.

This is the definition of a “self-starter”, someone who has “initiative” - which are things all bosses want.

As the saying goes, doing the right thing even when no-one is watching.

So think what tasks you could set yourself, to progress in your career.

Are there skills you would benefit from honing? Or people you would benefit from meeting?

Set yourself a task, then use the five step process above to delivery it.

A successful career is dependant on you taking personal responsibility for it.

What actions can you take today?

You can do it! Good luck.

Kirsten xx

Suggested actions

  • Every task that you give, or is given to you, from now on, use the formula: WHO is going to do WHAT by WHEN. Make sure the objective is clear; and make sure the expected product is clear.

  • Start keeping a record of how long things take you in rough units of time. For example, drafting a letter: 30 minutes. Writing a presentation: 2 hours. This will be very useful when you want to plan backwards from your deadline.

  • Take the Four Tendencies quiz, and think about your Tendency impacts on your career. Identify three advantages, and three disadvantages - and how to mitigate them. For example, you could create some external accountability for a task you set yourself, if you are an Obliger (like me!).