We All Make Them

Promises punctuate our professional and private lives. They are mostly small, with big ones intermingled, but nevertheless all are promises -- or at least seem to be. We could make many  e promises on any given day, such as:

  • Let’s do lunch; I will call you.
  • I’ll send you a copy of the article.
  • Send me the draft report; I’ll give you my comments.
  • I’ll draft the minutes; you will have them within three days.
  • Don’t worry about the sizes of the structural columns; I’ll check the calculations.
  • I’ll contact the EPA and get back to you.

Do We Keep Them?

However, informed by experience, we gradually learn that there are “promises” and there are promises. The former are just words and the latter are commitments to action; are as good as done.

We might argue that breaking small promises is not a significant issue. Small promises are in the gray area. Perhaps. After all, there are no explicit “small promises” principles, canons, or guidelines in the various ethics codes governing engineering professional practice. The immediate consequence of any unfilled small promise, such as not arranging lunch or not sending an article, is usually small. Furthermore, our technically based profession is built on a rational foundation of science and technology. Small, interpersonal failings would seem to pale in importance to the hard science and technology that we engineers wield. After all, what really counts is technical competence.

Strive to Earn Trust

However, having opportunities to effectively apply our technology in the form of products and services that others are willing to pay for or invest in requires developing a web of mutually trustful relationships with co-workers, business partners, clients, owners, elected officials, regulators, and other stakeholders. Clearly, major transgressions are likely to permanently shatter trust or prevent it from occurring.

Broken Glass

However, and this is the point of this essay, cumulative small lapses can have the same effect. They gradually exclude us from the web of those who have faith and confidence in each other and, as a consequence, we miss out on engineering, managing, and leading opportunities.

Talk is cheap to some of the people we encounter as evidenced by the lavish way they dispense words. Enthusiasm abounds, ideas flow, proposals are presented, and promises are made. However, experience with these individuals gradually reveals that promises, big and small, are not kept. While we may continue contact with the “talkers,” they are not likely to be part of our trusted circle of colleagues. We begin to question their engineering, management, and leadership competency.

Successful manufacture or building of a product, structure, facility, or system requires a careful synthesis of components. The size of any component doesn’t necessarily determine its importance. Recall the innocuous O-rings that precipitated the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster and the deceptively simple, small hanger rod and box beam connections that caused the fatal 1981 Kansas City Hyatt walkway collapse.

Similarly, successful development of mutually trustful relationships demands attention to both the big picture and the little details. Trust is built piece-by-piece; some pieces are large but many are small. By keeping small promises, we build big relationships.

Monochrome Photography of People Shaking Hands

Another way of stating that we are in the engineering profession, a service profession, is to say that we are in the trust business. Most of the individuals and organizations that we serve and interact with do not understand much of what we do; that’s why they retain us. However, they do recognize and feel broken promises, big or small. Broken promises erode trust which, in turn, brings our competence into question.

We engineers should strive to earn the trust of co-workers, business partners, clients, owners, elected officials, regulators, and other stakeholders. Keeping promises, including little ones, is essential to trustful relationships. My advice: DWYSYWD, that is, Do What You Said You Would Do.  And like many sound living principles, this one goes way back. For example, 3000 years ago King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 5:5) is traditionally credited with saying “It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it.”


Walesh, S. G. 2012. Engineering Your Future: The Professional Practice of Engineering. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ.

Images: Pixabay and Pexels


I welcome opportunities to speak, teach, conduct workshops, and collaborate about any aspect of earning trust and related topics such as ethics, personal time management, and marketing. Contact me at stu-walesh@comcast.net or 219-242-1704.

I’ve helped many engineering-oriented business, government, and academic organizations with education and training.

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