Broken promises hurt twice as much

by cv harquail on August 27, 2008

lfinger crossed behinde backWhat hurts more:

(a) An offensive organizational action or

(b) an offensive action that displays inauthenticity?

I vote for (b). An offensive action that displays inauthenticity hurts more than an action that is simply offensive.  Why? Because an offensive inauthentic action represents a broken promise.

When an organization makes a claim to be a certain way, it is making a promise to its stakeholders. When an organization like Omnicom says “We are committed to ensuring that we use our position to promote socially responsible policies and practices and that we make positive contributions to society”, we take that as a promise. When an organization like Tyson Food says “we strive to be faith friendly”, we take that as a promise. Omnicom promises to be socially responsible, and Tyson promises to be faith friendly. In both cases, we expect the organization to keep its work and to keep its promise.

A Promise is a Promise

The cynics within and among us can mock our naivete. Why should we expect an organization to keep its word about socially responsible behavior?   Well, if we expect organizations to keep their word about using quoted market prices to determine the fair value of their forward foreign exchange contracts, why shouldn’t we expect them to keep their word about the way they’ve committed to promote social responsibility?

Investors bet a lot of money that Omnicom will keep the promises it makes in its financial statements…so why should Omnicom’s promises about their social practices be any less of a sure thing?

An organization’s promises about its financial practices and its promises about its social practices are essentially the same thing. They are promises that an organization will act in accordance with its words. They are promises that the organization will be authentic. So, when an organization’s offensive actions contradict its promised actions, the actions are inauthentic.

Broken Promises Double the Harm

Offensive actions that are also inauthentic harm an organization’s stakeholders twice. First, they harm stakeholders by their offensiveness, plain and simple. Second, they harm stakeholders by demonstrating that the organization doesn’t keep its word. Each time an organization fails to keep its word, our trust in that organization erodes.

It was suggested in comments on an earlier post about a homophobic advertisement for Snickers, that “we are really offended and harmed not by the inconsistency between actions and policies of the ad agency), but by the homophobia (in the ad itself)”.  I absolutely agree that the homophobic ad itself is harmful, and I agree that acting to stop that harm as quickly as possible is always appropriate.  But there is more to it than that.

In addition to fixing the current harm, organizations need to fix the systems that lead them to harm their stakeholders in the first place.  In other words, organizations need to fix the systems that allow them to act inauthentically.

Promise to Keep the Organization’s Promises, by Being Authentic

While stopping the immediate harm is important, it is also important to prevent harm in the future. A strategy that addresses the source of the current harm is worth pursuing, even if this strategy might take longer to have an effect. In the case of Omnicom, pressuring the ad agency to act authentically would prevent future homophobic ads and prevent homophobic actions anywhere in the organization. Pressuring the organization to act authentically would have the additional benefit of helping the organization to keep any of its promises, regardless of whether these promises are financial or social.

Similarly, systems that help Tyson Foods to act authentically instead of inauthentically would help Tyson find ways to keep its promise to “strive to be a faith friendly company.” In addition to resolving the current issue of respecting the holy days of its Muslim employees, pressing Tyson to act authentically would prevent Tyson from demonstrating bad faith. Instead, Tyson would be motivated to find new ways to be faith friendly, by holding itself accountable for evolving its understanding of what it means to be faith-friendly to every stakeholder, to every faith, in any situation.

Organizations have systems in place to make sure that they keep their financial promises, and they should put systems into place to make sure that they keep their social promises, too.  Pressing an organization to act authentically helps to fix the immediate harm, to prevent future harm, and to keep any and all of the organization’s promises.

Technorati Tags: ,Omnicom,organizational authenticity,authentic organizations,,change managment,


Aneil Mishra August 27, 2008 at 4:58 pm

I agree with C.V., with the caveat of course that there are organizations out there that have done great harm deliberately and authentically. Leaving aside those kind of actions, any organization that is both offensive and inauthentic is especially problematic for the reasons CV provides, and because it contributes to increasing pervasiveness that we can’t trust many organizations to do what they say are going to do, even if they say they will do it.

To take a simple but important example: we can no longer trust the airlines to deliver us to our destinations on time, because they have continued to cut personnel, gates, and maintenance expenditures that contribute to delays that are the airlines’ fault, but that they try to excuse.

On our recent trip to California, two of the four segments were delayed because either 1) they had to taxi to find an open gate, and 2) they had to maintenance work (do work on the brakes) that should have been done at a scheduled time rather than at unscheduled one. I’ve also had flights cancelled because the “crew couldn’t be found.” I can only imagine what would happen to me if one of my MBA classes had to be cancelled because my students couldn’t find me!


Elizabeth Doty August 11, 2010 at 8:33 pm

Thanks for the extremely clear logic, C.V. It is very important that we start to see the links between basic obligations such as reporting financials accurately, to fulfilling CSR claims, to keeping commitments to customers, and so on.

One area I’m particularly interested in is the disconnect between many organizations’ lobbying/government affairs efforts (and sometimes their legal stances) with their brand/corporate citizenship efforts. I understand that some of these are completely unintentional — yet diametrically opposed.

You might enjoy the book Value Shift, in which Lynn Sharpe Paine outlines the 7 functions necessary for organizations to keep their promises and thus actually be responsible moral actors as a whole: 1) Being able to gauge the capability to fulfill a promise, 2) keeping track of promises and transferring them across the organization, 3) getting cooperation from other parts of the organization to deliver, 4) having all individuals be promise-keepers, 5) having promises seen as valid reasons in decision-making, 6) educating individuals into the system of promise-keeping, 7) having systems to correct when promises are broken. Clearly most of these are not present and are not very strong in most organizations — and even more important, these functions are not often associated with promise-keeping/integrity and so seem like “add-ons”.

Again, thanks for insightful post.

Comments on this entry are closed.