Often when managers and employees feel frustrated about other’s lack of accountability, and they describe the reality as: “They promised to do X and didn’t deliver!” there is more to the story than that.
I have seen many times, in situations of conflict or dispute, person A insisting that person B promised to do or deliver something and simply did not do so, while person B denies ever having made the promise in the first place.
Both parties feel frustrated and resentful. Each one believes their version of the story represents the facts and truth. However, in many cases, when both parties step back, look a bit deeper, and try to view the situation more objectively, they realize that it was not bad intent caused their heartache, but rather the lack of rigor and clarity in their initial interaction.
If you want to avoid the common issues that happen when requesting or promising, there are a few things to pay attention to:
- Make sure what you are requesting or promising is clear, understood, and agreed to in the same way by both sides. Often, instead of explicitly spelling it out, people assume the other person knows what they are requesting or promising. It probably won’t be an exaggeration to say that, more often than not, people simply do not understand and/or are not aligned about what is being promised or requested. Needless to say, this causes mismatched expectations, that always lead to upset.
- Make sure the time frame of the promise or request is clear. For example, if you are asking for additional resources or budget for a strategic project, be specific about the time frame (the ‘by when’). Don’t leave it vague, or hope they’ll understand your urgency or act on it rapidly. And, if the person you are requesting this from promises to make it happen, “As soon as possible,” don’t settle for the lack of clarity… And don’t fall into the trap of assuming you will get what you need in the time you need it. Furthermore, don’t feel disappointed if your expectations were not met.
- Make sure the level of sincerity and commitments toward the promise is explicit. When you make a request and someone responses with “I’ll do my best” or “I don’t see any reason why not,” don’t make the mistake of taking that as an affirmation of commitment. A promise is clear, explicit, and unconditional. This doesn’t mean that a promise is a guarantee and, therefore, will always be fulfilled. However, when someone says: “I promise,” “You can count on me,” or “You have my word,” that represents a much stronger, sincerer, and more committed intention to do what they said. People often avoid this level of clarity because it is uncomfortable, and they fear it could lead to the realization that they may not get what they want.
- Check-in, follow up, and support the promise while it is being delivered. When someone promises you something, and they are in the process of working on it, your job is not over. You need to stay engaged and involved throughout the duration of the delivery cycle as a committed and vested partner in order to keep the promise alive. This interaction will look different depending on the nature of the promise and person you are dealing with. Sometimes it may mean checking in on a frequent basis. At other times, it may mean looking the person in the eye at the onset to get a sense of confidence that they really mean it, understood it, and will follow through. The main reason for avoiding this conversation is because it is disruptive and uncomfortable. People fear it could lead to the realization that they may not get what they want.
- Manage undelivered promises with integrity. No matter how sincere the promise, it is never a guarantee. Things happen, and people who promise sometimes fail to deliver or change their mind. If you understand and accept that simple fact, you will be in a much better mental place to deal with undelivered promises. For the most part, people know ahead of the deadline that they are not going to deliver what they promised. But unfortunately, while people seem to have no problem not doing what they said, they do have a problem being straight up and upfront about it.
The lack of courage to acknowledge and take responsibility for promises that won’t be delivered often goes both ways – to the one promising and the one being ‘promised to.’ Have you ever been in a situation in which someone promised you something, you had a feeling they may not come through, and still you avoided confronting them about it?
Regardless of your position and seniority – if you are not going to deliver on your promise, letting others find out at the last minute and be surprised is not acceptable. It undermines trust, credibility, confidence, and success.
If you can’t deliver what you promised, communicate in a timely and responsible manner. Then the two of you – together – can figure out alternative solutions and routes to rectify the situation or take a different course.
People want to fulfill their commitments and succeed, but they also can handle the truth, even if it is bad news. By interacting with rigor, clarity, courage, and responsibility, you are promoting respect, emphasizing other’s strengths, and enabling success.