By Tom Cox
Just had a client ask about how to best handle a nagging problem -- his people were loose and lax about keeping internal promises and hitting internal deadlines.
I say "nagging problem" because it was bugging him, and he'd tried nagging his people -- continually mentioning it, criticizing them for it, trying to lead by example, and on and on. Nothing he was doing was getting him what he needed -- a culture of high performance, execution, and commitment.
On reflection I realized that the problem wasn't about keeping promises. As renowned executive coach Tracey Snoyer likes to say, "If you're keeping all your promises, you aren't making enough promises -- to play the game at the highest level, you have to be at risk of making a promise one day, and the next day finding out you can't keep it. Top performers stand out by how they handle it."
You cannot control every circumstance so you cannot keep 100% of every promise you ever make -- unless you make none at all, or only very trivial ones.
What you can do is control how you respond when you find your cannot keep your promise.
You can either respond in a way that damages relationships, or you can respond in ways that actually strengthen relationships. This is where the high performance team separates from the low performance team.
Here's what you should do when you've made a commitment and find you cannot keep it:
1. Immediately notify the affected person that you won't be delivering as promised -- don't make them find out the hard way, such as from another person, from rumor, or from your failure to deliver: "I'm calling you today, Tuesday, to tell you I won't be done by noon on Thursday as I had previously said I would be."
2. Optionally, explain briefly how YOU contributed to the problem (not what others did): "I failed to allow enough time for my subcontractor to do the revisions." This is about your role -- do NOT throw others under the bus.
3. Demonstrate your compassion by stating in a sentence or two how you know they are affected: "I know this puts you back and could shove you into working on the weekend, or incurring overtime charges."
4. Re-promise: "I will have it in your hands by noon Friday." Be sure this is a deadline you can keep.
5. Offer to help clean it up: "If you have to work the weekend, I'll be in here with you to help." Or, "I'll cover any overtime charges out of my budget, not yours."
6. Optionally, tell them your new commitment more generally: "You have my commitment that in the future I will check with the subcontractor about their turnaround time, rather than assuming it, and I will commit to being on time in the future."
None of these steps require the other person to be a high performer -- all of these steps mark you as a high performer.
This guidance also applies to the promises that you make to yourself. You cannot make high integrity promises to others when you make empty promises to yourself.