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Winning at Working: Taking Your Words Seriously
by Nan Russell

When we ordered the stained glass window as an accent piece for our home, the artist-proprietor told us he was a bit behind. “So," he said, “to be on safe side, plan on six months." That was two years ago. We still don’t have the window. Each time we call or stop in, he has yet another plausible reason why our project isn’t done, the appropriate apology and a new promise of a delivery date. What he doesn’t have is credibility.

Wishful promises don’t cut it in small-town businesses or big-city corporations. It doesn’t matter what role you’re in. If you tell me you’ll do something, I expect you will do it whether you’re a business, an employee, a co-worker or my boss. You’re the one setting my expectations, so why wouldn’t I believe what you tell me?

It baffles me. I’ve found in twenty years of management few people meet or exceed the expectations they set and they control. I’m not talking about deadlines other people set for you. I’m talking about the ones you establish. Maybe it’s because few people take their own words seriously. If you do you can differentiate yourself at work. People who consistently do what they say they’re going to do, without sandbagging, are memorable. They’re the people with credibility. They’re the ones you want to hire and promote and do business with.

People fail to establish credibility without even knowing it. If someone tells me she’ll provide information by Friday, but what she meant was “around Friday," she’ll feel she met her obligation to me when she pushes send on her email Monday morning. I’ll view her as lacking credibility when the information for a project I wanted was late. However, if she told me I’d get the information no later than Tuesday and delivered it on Monday, while her delivery date remains the same, her credibility soars. By managing the words that define what others can expect from you, you can surprise and delight your co-workers, boss, and customers.

To do that, replace casual-speak and wishful promises of what you’d like to have happen or believe can happen, with commitments of what will happen. But here’s the key. You can’t commit what you can’t control. If I tell a member of my staff he’ll get his review next week, but I only control when I finish writing it not when it’s approved, the likelihood of me failing to meet an expectation I set with him is strong. But if the review is written, signed by my boss, and in for processing at the time I set the expectation, I’ll meet it.

Our delinquent artisan could have called three months into the project, told us he accepted an unusual opportunity to restore an historic building, was putting his other projects on hold until that was complete, and offered us the choice of waiting until he resumed work or getting our deposit back. He could have preserved his credibility and the relationship.

Actions may speak louder than words. But it’s our words that provide the backdrop for whether our actions measure up. If I’m your customer, your boss, or your co-worker, I’m taking your words seriously. I think you should, too.

© 2004 Nan S. Russell. All rights reserved.

Nan Russell may be contacted at

Author of Hitting Your Stride: Your Work, Your Way (Capital Books; January 2008). Host of "Work Matters with Nan Russell" weekly on Nan Russell has spent over twenty years in management, most recently with QVC as a Vice President. Sign up to receive Nan's "Winning at Working" tips and insights at


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