If You’re Only As Good As Your Word, What Happens When You Can’t Keep It?

You’ve heard it said thousands of times in your life, You’re only as good as your word.”

But what does “you’re only as good as your word” really mean? It sounds simple. Is it?

We’re born into this world and brought up in a society that expects people to be true to the promises they make. In the simplest term, we’re taught to do what we say we are going to do.

When I was younger, that idea seemed very important to me. It still does. Not keeping one’s word can have very serious impacts. At the same time, however, I am concerned that the commitment to keeping one’s word has lost its importance in today’s society, which has far-reaching implications.

Years ago, many agreements were made and kept with a single handshake. People didn’t have to worry about things going sideways after saying what they were going to do.

In today’s world, some people will agree to a deal, but if something better comes along, they will do what they can to walk away from their prior commitment.

Back in the day, you were expected to begin my work day at 9:00 a.m., that meant you were ready to go and to start your to-do list by 9:00 a.m. — at the latest. Nowadays, it seems like most employees believe that a 9:00 a.m. start time means they just have to get through the door of their work site by that time.

Likewise, in a prior era, if you set an appointment for a certain time, it was expected you would be on time. I have always lived by the mantra, “If you’re on time, you’re late.” As a young athlete, I would be the first one at practices and the last one to leave.

It used to be that husbands and fathers would tell their wives and children when they would be home, and lo and behold, they were. In today’s world, that doesn’t happen often. We are expected to work harder and longer hours. We’re expected to stay at the job until the last task of the day is completed. In businesses like my own, real estate, it’s tough to commit to a time when the day ends because from day to day, you don’t know what will come to pass.

I was recently having a conversation with a friend of mine and we were chatting about what “your word” means, and the difference between keeping your word and honoring your word. Why does the distinction matter? I think it’s because these days, many variables act as obstacles to our ability to keep our word.

Keeping your word is about doing what you say you’re going to do. If that means being at a specific place at a specific time, you show up.  But we know that’s not always possible. Life gets in the way. Traffic backs up. A child has an unexpected accident. A deal falls apart because of circumstances beyond our control.

So how do you honor your word in these situations, when you know despite all your best intention and effort, you’re not going to be able to carry through with what you say you’re going to do.

Well, barring the idea that you’re just flaky, and you’re backing out on what you say you’re going to do, the best way to honor your word is through transparency and disclosure.

If you see yourself running late to an appointment, the best way to honor your word if you’re not going to be on time is to make a phone call and let the person know your delay and expected time of arrival, and to make sure that the new set of circumstances matches their availability.

If you’re going to have to miss an appointment, the best way to be honorable with your word is to provide as much advance notice of the change in schedule, and to provide options that are amenable to the person who is being inconvenienced by your cancellation.

If I am running late, for example, at the very least, I will pick up my phone and make a call to let the relevant parties know that I realize I am not keeping the agreement that I committed to, but that I am on working on it. People appreciate it when others take the time to show a little common courtesy.

Many of us are too shy or too prideful about admitting they they are not going to keep their word, and consequently, let another person down by denying the circumstances until it’s too late to make a change without inflicting consequences.

So why does it matter? Not honoring one’s word could be disastrous — and costly! If I don’t try to honor my word with my client, I could be seen as inconsiderate and unprofessional. It might appear that I don’t care about other people’s time.

People may get away with this once or twice, but if this kind of consistent behavior would lead one to get fired from a job, or by a client. In real estate, if I behaved dishonorably toward a potential listing customer, I could lose the opportunity to work with that client, or I could be fired from a listing with an existing client. If I were dishonorable toward a buyer lead, that could be another purchase out the door. Getting fired means a loss of income, but worse, if word got out — and it would — my reputation would be tarnished, costing more than just money in the future.

Failing to honor one’s word can damage relationships. When people rely on you, whether in business or personally, the idea of not honoring your word will lose you respect, trust, and face.

I teach the idea of owning a mistake. In fact, not long ago I made a costly mistake on behalf of my clients. But the idea of not owning the mistake made me sick to my stomach. I called my clients, asked if I could come to their house and talk. I sat in their kitchen and explained to them how I had made the mistake, explained that I would honor my word and take ownership of the error.

After I had finished meeting with them and the transaction had closed, my clients told several people about what had happened and what I had done to take ownership of my error. Not only did I solidify my relationship with them, I am confident more business will come out of it — simply because I had honored my word.

Keeping your word is always preferred to other options, but if you’re running late or behind schedule, or otherwise can’t live up to what you said you’re going to do, being transparent and disclosing the appropriate information will allow you to honor your word. And that will carry a lot of weight when it comes time to earn or keep someone’s trust.