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By Francis Wade


Monday, January 23, 2012.


It’s a bit of a regional joke: A Bajan, Guyanese or Jamaican meets a Trini who enthusiastically tells them they must come to visit during the next Carnival. After a few text messages, the arrangements are made. The tourist arrives at Piarco, only to leave a week later without ever hearing from or seeing the Trini.


A part of this kind of misunderstanding has to do with a cultural difference between Trinidadians and others in the region, but this short tale says a lot about how agreements are held by Caribbean people. As a Jamaican, I know for example that taking one away from ten leaving zero, represents what might be the biggest broken agreement the region has experienced to date. The effects are still being felt today. Just witness our politicians attempting to generate interest in Caricom, which is perhaps failing because the closer we get to something substantial, the more it reminds us of the failure in integrity that Federation represents. 

When Jamaica knowingly broke its agreement with her fellow Caribbean countries it reinforced a weakness that we have as a regional people: we make and break promises as if they aren’t important. 

On a micro-level we promise that we’ll arrive at 8 pm and then arrive at 9 pm It’s not as if we really intended to be there at 8. In fact, we know that promises to arrive at a particular time mean something close to the following: “Don’t expect me before 8 or shortly thereafter.” While this is not a problem for social engagements, in the business world a late start to an important meeting costs real money. This lost productivity quickly adds up to millions of dollars and helps give our region’s countries some of the lowest productivity scores in the hemisphere. We are unproductive when we don’t pay attention to the nitty-gritty of promise-making. 

The Nitty-Gritty of Promise Making, Keeping and Breaking 

Promises are unlike the kind of talk we engage in during ordinary conversations. The language of promise-making is quite different as it’s meant to carry an inter-personal force that binds the promise makers and listeners. When this language is being spoken, it imparts a commitment to be true to the promise being made, regardless of the circumstances. 

In business, promise-givers range from the mature to the immature. Mature promise makers believe that it has something to do with the way we give our word. They believe that promises have power, and that they are meant to bind people together in a distinct way. When a promise is made and accepted, an invisible bond is created that has a life as long as both the speaker and the listener choose to honour its importance. 

On the other end of the spectrum are those who make promises in an immature way. For them, there is no distinct language being used when promises are being made — it’s just like everyday speech that isn’t more important than any other kind of chatter. When a promise is made by the immature, no special effort is made to keep the commitment. The end result is left to chance, and they are genuinely surprised when people get upset when promises are tossed aside, or simply forgotten. 

Most Caribbean professionals, however, fall somewhere in between these extremes, and one critical business skill one must develop to be successful in our region is the ability to distinguish where fellow business-people are on this spectrum. Here are some simple indicators. 

In general, those who are more mature are easier to do business with. When challenges present themselves, they raise their game in order to keep their word. They overlook small obstacles, personal discomforts and passing feelings. They demonstrate a certain kind of relentless momentum that rapidly increases the odds of success. 

At the same time, when they fail they are honest, and recognise that it’s critical to communicate with those who are depending on the promise, or are bound to it in some way. They bring a sense of grave reverence to promise-breaking, regardless of the particular circumstances. 

We Caribbean people need to understand these distinctions so that we can work effectively with each other. Cultural differences can help explain some of the reasons why we are unproductive, but in the realm of promise-making, keeping and breaking we need distinctions like these in order to improve the way we do business in our home countries, and across the region. 


Francis Wade is a management consultant based in Kingston, Jamaica. He blogs at  http://www.2time-sys.com/


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