How to Revoke a Pledge

There are times we need to revoke promises or pledges, but most of us don’t know how. This blog post gives the steps and why they work.[br][br]

Business leaders need to make promises, and also need to undo them at times. Years ago, I entered into a promise with another consultant to develop some materials together. We never signed an agreement, but I did write a check to her to open a bank account so we could start to hire contractors. In my mind, her promise was just as good as a legal agreement. After not talking for several weeks, I got an envelope from her in the mail that contained a single piece of paper: a check returning the amount of money I had contributed. To this day, I don’t know what happened, and I often find my mind sorting through the set of possible causes. Was it something I said? Did she decide she just didn’t want to do it? And why did she drop out of communication about it? She has refused to talk to me about it, although we do occasionally bump into each other at conferences and make nice small talk. Notice the effect of breaking a promise rather than revoking it: it prevents the relationship from moving forward, damages your credibility, and leaves the other party wondering what happened. At best, it causes strained relations and confusion. At worst, it can destroy careers and families. Notice also that breaking a promise casts a shadow on the relationship. The dark side begins its slow creep.[br][br]

I give an example of how an elected official can revoke a promise in the CBS Money Watch blog post. Here are the steps, how to use them, and why they work, in more detail. In this blog post, I’ll give the example of how a business executive, representing her company, can undo a promise to joint venture on developing new products.[br][br]

Step 1:
Recognize that you’re the victim of a type of language, and it will require this same type of language to get you out. Promises are a type of “performatives,” as is an offer, a request, and a bet. When you go to a bookie and say “I bet USC will beat UCLA by 50 points,” you’re not just describing a bet, you’re making one. (In this case, a really good one, given the results of the game. Fight on!) The consequences of not honoring the terms of the performative can range from lawsuits to bodily harm, if the bet goes against you.[br][br]

Marriage is both a legal agreement and a promise, and these are separate. The legal agreement can be undone with a divorce, but most divorcing couples never formally undo their promises to each other. The result is often a lack of closure, continued hurt feelings, and a lack of maturity on both sides that harms everyone involved. We probably all know divorced couples who refuse to speak to each other because the anger and resentment is so sharp. A possible reason is that the person who promised to love, protect and honor the other simply started acting in violation of this promise and has not established a new set of promises to govern their relationship going forward. Without going through the process laid out in this blog, the other party probably repeated the same actions, making the situation even worse.[br][br]

Step 2:
Meet with the person, or write a statement, that explicitly states the promise you made. Also lists the core values that led you to make this promise in the first place.[br][br]

In the joint venture example, you might say: “I entered into a formal agreement with you, and promised to work with you to develop a new line of products. I did this because I thought the synergies in our companies’ working together could produce results that neither one could do alone. The key driver was the desire to innovate and do well for both of our companies, and their investors.”[br][br]

Step 3:
Explain what, in your view, has changed. My friend Michael Margolis makes the great point that people don’t change, they remain consistent. But in a paradox, if consistency requires them to change, they will. In a session at Zappos Insights that literally made people say “wow!”, Michael used the example of Domino’s Pizza, and how they changed their pizza recipe and ingredients to be consistent with the original commitment of great food, delivered quickly. You can see the video he showed here. The point is you explain a change by pointing out that it’s required to meet the original and deeper commitment.[br][br]

In the joint venture example, you might say: “Things in the economy have changed, as we both know. While I still think our companies could do great work together, we’re realizing that we are overextended, and that our limited resources are forcing us to have some difficult discussions, including whether we can continue in our joint venture with you and your company.”[br][br]

Step 4:
Formally undo the promise. It’s important to use the words, so at some point say: “I am revoking my promise,” or something that is in your own words but that is as declarative. In our example, you might say: “Based on these factors, I am revoking our promise to work with you, and have asked our general counsel to begin the process of working out a resolution contract.”[br][br]

Step 5:
State any regrets, and also your commitment to the deeper values. In the example: “I wish circumstances were different, and regret that we won’t have the chance to create new products together. I’m sure you understand that my primary concern must be for the good of the company I lead, as your primary concern is to your company.”[br][br]

Offer actions you’ll take to deal with the mess your revoking this promise is making. You might say: “We will honor the terms of our agreement,” or, if the situation is dire, you might suggest: “In light of our tough situation, I request that we sit down together and see what terms we can come to. Frankly, I need your help.”[br][br]

If it’s appropriate, make a new promise going forward. You might say: “Going forward, I promise to tell people the truth about you and your company, which is that you do great work, conduct yourselves honorably, and have my ongoing respect.”[br][br]

Here’s where people with legal training, or with an attorney whispering in their ear, might object. “Far better to let the lawyers hash it out,” they’ll say. Actually, not true in most cases. Nothing against attorneys, but people using the steps in this blog post can get more done faster, and far cheaper, by involving lawyers as the last step, not the first. (This blog post is offering strategic and relationship issues and should not be taken as legal advice. I am not an attorney.)[br][br]

Two paragraphs for those who want to read more about this topic. Performatives, including promises and revocation, is covered in many great books from years ago that leaders today should rediscover. They include: J. L. Austin’s How To Do Things With Words and John Searle’s Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores put the idea of speech acts into a protocol for computers to use in a great book called Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design.[br][br]

For those who want to read more how a revocation works, read Daniel Vanderveken’s Meaning and Speech Acts. He writes: that to revoke “declares the formal…calling back or drawing back of a former decision or enactment” (p. 211). In other words, revoking a promise undoes it with the same power that created it: the force of your words. It must be done in a formal sentence, such as “I revoke my promise to finish this project by Tuesday.”[br][br]

I hope you’ll add a comment here on the process of revoking a promise, and when you’ve used it effectively, or not done it right, and what the effect was. We’ll all learn from your example. (Please don’t say anything that will get you in trouble, legal or otherwise.)[br][br]

You may also like

Send this to a friend