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Manage the stresses of complex problem-solving, tight deadlines, and high-pressure situations at work with integrity and emotional intelligence.

A few years ago, I discovered Don Miguel Ruiz’s renowned book, The Four Agreements, which provides four simple yet profound principles for personal growth and self-improvement. Since then, I’ve found myself frequently applying its principles to navigate workplace challenges, such as communicating effectively with colleagues, managing stress and emotions during high-pressure situations, and maintaining integrity and authenticity in the face of difficult decisions. 

Integrating these tenets into my daily professional life has been a powerful self-coaching tool, helping me handle common workplace pressures with calm composure.

What are the four agreements? 

The four agreements are the following set of practical guidelines:

  1. Be impeccable with your word – Speak with integrity and honesty, avoiding gossip and self-deprecation. Use your words constructively.
  2. Don’t take anything personally – Recognize that others’ actions and opinions are projections of their own reality, not yours. Don’t let them needlessly affect you.
  3. Don’t make assumptions – Communicate clearly and ask questions to ensure mutual understanding. This helps prevent misinterpretations and conflicts.
  4. Always do your best – Your best may vary from moment to moment, but by always striving to do your best, you’ll avoid self-judgment and regret.

While these principles were developed for personal growth, they hold immense value in professional settings where clear communication, trust, and collaboration are crucial.

1. Be impeccable with your word

Clear and honest communication is the foundation of trust and reliability. Being impeccable with your word means making commitments you can keep, providing feedback that is both truthful and constructive, and ensuring that your communications uplift and empower your colleagues.

“I define integrity as honoring your word. A person with integrity keeps her promises whenever possible, and still honors them if she is unable to do so. You make a grounded promise by committing only to deliver what you believe you can deliver. You keep the promise by delivering it. And you can still honor the promise when you can’t keep it by letting the person you are promising know of the situation, and taking care of the consequences.”
― Fred Kofman, The Meaning Revolution: The Power of Transcendent Leadership

How to practically apply this principle: 

  • Commitments: When discussing project timelines or deliverables with your manager or team, be clear and truthful about estimates and potential challenges. Follow through on your promise when you commit to a deadline or task. If circumstances change and you cannot meet the commitment, communicate promptly and transparently to manage expectations.
  • Feedback: When having tough conversations, such as providing critical feedback or addressing performance issues, speak with honesty and empathy, focusing on facts and constructive solutions rather than personal attacks or accusations. 

    Avoid participating in or spreading rumors about team dynamics or project decisions. Instead, encourage open and transparent communication using tools such as team surveys, decision logs, or requests for comments (RFCs) to surface feedback through the right channels.
  • Escalations: When direct communication with a colleague can’t resolve an issue, employ the concept of clean escalation. This involves presenting the problem to a higher authority or a mediator without undermining or blaming others. Approach escalation by clearly stating the facts, outlining your efforts to resolve the issue, and providing constructive suggestions for the next steps. This practice ensures issues are addressed with integrity, fostering a solution-oriented, respectful work environment.
  • Recognition: When acknowledging contributions or achievements, be genuine and specific in your praise, recognizing the efforts and impact of individuals or teams.

Mastering the art of communication is a transformative tool in any professional’s arsenal. Commit to maintaining high standards of integrity in all your interactions, which strengthens relationships and fosters a reliable and ethical work environment. For more techniques on how to become impeccable with your words, check out Fred Kofman’s courses on making commitments and managing conflict

2. Don’t take anything personally

Feedback and critiques are part and parcel of the professional environment. They aim to improve quality and project outcomes, not diminish personal worth. Cultivating the ability not to take things personally can transform potentially defensive situations into opportunities for learning and growth.

“There's several reasons why it makes sense to begin building a culture of radical candor by asking people to criticize you. First, it's the best way to show that you are aware you are often wrong and that you want to hear about it when you are. You want to be challenged. Second, you’ll learn a lot. Few people scrutinize you as closely as do those that report to you. […] Third, the more first hand experience you have with how it feels to receive criticism, the better idea you'll have of how your own guidance lands for others. Fourth, asking for criticism is a great way to build trust and strengthen your relationships.”
― Kim Malone Scott, Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity

How to practically apply this principle: 

  • Feedback: Establish a culture where giving and receiving feedback is seen as a natural part of the continuous improvement process, not a personal criticism.
  • Disagreements: When faced with disagreements or differing opinions, separate the ideas from the individuals. Focus on understanding the rationale behind different perspectives without taking the opposing views as a personal affront.
  • Failures: View project setbacks, bugs, or failures as learning opportunities rather than personal shortcomings. Approach them with curiosity and a growth mindset, seeking to understand the root causes and implement improvements.
  • Emotions: Recognize that emotions are a natural part of the human experience, but it’s essential to manage them effectively in professional settings. To separate your own emotions from work interactions, practice mindfulness by acknowledging your emotions without judgment and consciously redirecting your focus back to the task at hand. Use cognitive reframing to look at the situation from a different perspective and find a more objective or positive interpretation.

Not taking things personally is crucial for professional resilience and growth. Encourage a feedback-rich environment where all team members feel safe to express honest opinions. For additional strategies on building this type of environment, consider reading Kim Scott’s book on Radical Candor to learn techniques for getting, giving, and encouraging feedback and guidance that’s kind, clear, specific, and sincere.

3. Don't make assumptions

Miscommunications can derail projects. By not making assumptions and seeking clarity, you prevent misunderstandings and ensure that everyone is aligned on project goals and methods.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This principle is the key to effective interpersonal communication.”
― Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

How to practically apply this principle: 

  • Active listening: In any conversation or collaboration, practice active listening to fully understand the other person's perspective, needs, and ideas. Give your full attention to the speaker, ask clarifying questions, and paraphrase their key points to confirm your understanding. By engaging in active listening, you demonstrate respect, build rapport, and gather the necessary information to make informed decisions and avoid misunderstandings. 
  • Decision-makingWhen faced with important decisions, involve relevant stakeholders and gather diverse perspectives. Create opportunities for open discussion through meetings, collaborative documents (e.g., shared notes, wikis), surveys, and 1:1 conversations. Maintain a decision log to ensure transparency and accountability. By providing multiple avenues for input and collaboration, and keeping a record of the decision-making process, you can make informed decisions that consider diverse viewpoints.
  • Culture: In multicultural or global teams, be aware of potential cultural differences and avoid making assumptions about communication styles, work practices, or social norms. For example, some cultures may value direct communication, while others prefer a more indirect approach. Similarly, attitudes towards hierarchy, decision-making processes, and work-life balance can differ greatly between cultures. Approach interactions with curiosity and a willingness to learn.
  • Empathy: Before jumping to conclusions about a colleague’s behavior or actions, consider that you may be unaware of underlying factors or perspectives. Practice empathy and seek to understand their context before making assumptions.

Avoiding assumptions is fundamental to fostering clear and effective communication. As Stephen R. Covey advises, you can prevent many workplace misunderstandings and conflicts by actively seeking to understand before being understood. This habit aligns teams and supports a culture of open dialogue and mutual respect.

4. Always do your best

Your “best” can vary daily, but the commitment to give your all within your current circumstances fosters a culture of accountability and excellence. Demonstrating personal responsibility, openly communicating challenges, and learning from setbacks builds trust, psychological safety, and a shared commitment to learning and growth, rather than perfection. It reduces the guilt of not meeting unrealistic expectations and highlights the value of consistent effort over sporadic perfection.

“In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. If you fail—or if you’re not the best—it’s all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome. They’re tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues. Maybe they haven’t found the cure for cancer, but the search was deeply meaningful.”
― Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

How to practically apply this principle:

  • Prioritization: In moments of high stress or tight deadlines, prioritize and give your best to the most critical tasks. Remember, “your best” doesn’t mean overworking but rather applying yourself effectively within the given constraints.
  • Learning: Embrace a growth mindset and continuously seek opportunities to expand your knowledge and skills. Attend workshops, read industry publications, or participate in professional development programs to enhance your abilities and stay current with best practices.
  • Balance: Recognize the importance of self-care. Make time for activities that rejuvenate you, such as exercise, hobbies, or spending time with loved ones. A well-rested and balanced individual is better equipped to do their best work.
  • Collaboration: Foster an environment of collaboration and support within your team. Offer assistance when colleagues need it, and don’t hesitate to ask for help when you need it. Collective effort and mutual support can help everyone perform at their best.

Strive for consistent effort rather than perfection, focusing on what can be learned from each experience. Embrace a growth mindset to foster an environment of continuous improvement. To build a practice of getting comfortable with setbacks and failures and learning from them, Carol Dweck’s Mindset is a must-read.

Closing thoughts

Integrating the four agreements into your professional life isn’t just about enhancing your work environment; it’s about cultivating a philosophy of personal and collective excellence. Reflect on these agreements regularly and strive to live by them, as they have the potential to fundamentally improve both your professional and personal life.