Breaking Commitments

Everyone has to break commitments from time to time. There are ways to break commitments and keep integrity intact, and even to move a relationship forward after a “breaking.” There is also a distinction between commitments that are actually broken (“breakings”) and communication breakdowns that lead to differing perceptions as to whether a commitment has actually been broken. This case study looks at the former.

Jill and Tom were two successful advertising entrepreneurs, each running their own firm. Over the years a friendship had developed as well. Jill excelled at business development, while Tom’s strength was in process and deliverables. They saw synergies in merging their two firms, and agreed to form a partnership. Jill would focus on marketing and closing new clients for the new company, and Tom would handle everything from proposal acceptance forward.

While attorneys drafted the terms of the partnership agreement, Jill and Tom moved forward on a handshake, creating a new company name and identity, leasing new space and moving the office, and announcing the new firm via press releases and advertisements. Tom let go of his business development activities, turning over his leads to Jill and trusting her to develop all new business going forward.

60 days into the new arrangement, Jill was offered an incredible opportunity to handle a large, high profile assignment for the next 4 years. However, the offer was only for Jill – not for her new company. Jill decided to break the partnership commitment in favor of what she perceived to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

When Jill informed Tom about her decision, a huge blow-up ensued. Both the professional relationship and friendship were at risk. Tom threatened a lawsuit.

Jill had not been direct with Tom, and he felt blindsided because he thought they were both heading full speed toward getting the partnership off to a strong start. In her excitement over the offer, Jill had neglected to see the full impact on Tom and the partnership. She had actually expected him to understand and be happy for her. From this vantage point, Jill was confused and annoyed at Tom’s reaction.

Tom, on the other hand, was furious at the lack of open disclosure. He was also afraid that his company was now in jeopardy. Jill’s decision left him feeling somewhat inadequate and hurt, because it felt like a vote of no confidence in their new firm. The breaking of the commitment led to a loss of trust, on many fronts.

The central question was, did both parties value the relationship enough to try and repair it? In this case, the answer was yes. Jill approached Tom, and requested that he put the brakes on the lawsuit for 14 days. She then apologized for breaking her commitment to the partnership, and the way she’d handled the communication. She explained the opportunity fully and shared the quandary she’d experienced in reaching a decision, and requested Tom’s understanding and help in finding an acceptable solution for them both. This started the rebuilding of trust.

They agreed that Jill would delay starting her new assignment for 60 days, would be an “associate” of the partnership for a period of one year, and help Tom interview for her replacement. Given this new context, Tom was able to re-trench, remember who Jill was, and let go of his attack response.

Once the breaking was acknowledged from both perspectives and different commitments made, the relationship actually became stronger than it was before. A relationship that has endured only positive events has not been tested. It takes courage, willingness of all parties and humility to work through a breaking. To do so builds trust, because of the necessary vulnerability and willingness to transform the relationship, rather than trash it.

Consider where breakings may have occurred in your own professional or personal life. Do you value the relationship enough to take the following steps?

  1. Acknowledge the breaking of the commitment, express or implied.
  2. Articulate that you value the relationship above being right.
  3. Offer your willingness to transform the relationship, and request the other party’s as well.
  4. Listen to the other’s perspective; you don’t have to agree, but you do have to hear and acknowledge their position.
  5. Be humble enough to state your perspective in full, without the expectation that the other party agree with you.
  6. Make new commitments that you both can meet. Take continued, incremental steps to build/rebuild the trust that has been broken.
  7. Check in frequently to see how you’re doing.
  8. Ask for support if you need it, from a coach or other impartial third party.

The most effective leaders are those that are able to not only form strong relationships, but to take the lead in transforming them when necessary.


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