Skip to main content

I Dropped the Ball

| May 31, 2016

by Jim Bruce

Every one of us has, at one time or another, disappointed a colleague or friend.  No matter how hard you try, sometimes a deadline will be missed or a commitment not met.  Many of these misses don’t carry huge consequences – almost always some disappointment, sometimes inconvenience, and perhaps some loss of credibility.  And, some have huge consequences – real deep disappointment, loss of trust and credibility.  Liann Davey says that it is inevitable that you won’t be able to live up to everyone’s expectations, neither small ones or large significant ones.  There are simply too many priorities, too few resources, and expectations are too high. 
Professor Sigal Barsade, the Joseph Frank Bernstein Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, believes that while it is inevitable that we will miss some of the commitments we make, we can minimize the damage done by addressing the issue as soon as we are aware of it, rather than ignoring our failure, and running away from it.
Amy Gallo suggests an eight-step process that might be helpful:
1.   Act first.  Instead of running away, address the issue when you become aware that you are not going to meet your commitment.  Hopefully, this will give the other person time to find other ways to handle the situation.  If you wait until the other person has no options, you are putting them in a terrible position AND further damaging your credibility.
2.  Prepare emotionally for the conversation.  If you are on a course to disappoint a colleague or your partner or a friend, you need to have a conversation.  This will be difficult, as you don’t want to disappoint the person.  You need to prepare because in situations like this, we all have the tendency to become indirect and use too many words.  Barsade notes that sometimes you might be so nervous that you blurt it out in a callous way just to get it out.  All this suggests that you need to work on what and how you are going to convey the bad news. 
3.  Plan, prepare, and practice.  Gallo suggests that you might write down what you are going to say.  Davey suggests that you be sure to get the details correct.  And, as you prepare, think about different possibilities.  What if the individual gets upset?  Yells?  Etc.  How will you react?
4.  Talk face to face.  If you are not going to fulfill your commitments, it is far better to deliver that message face-to-face than any other way.  Face-to-face you can read the person’s reactions and convey a genuine apology.  If it’s possible to renegotiate the agreement, it’s far easier to work out the details face–to-face, rather than through a flood of electronic messages.

5.  Tell it like it is.  Be concise.  “I made a mistake.”  “I didn’t complete the project.”  Explain what happened;  take responsibility.
6.  Apologize.  Saying “I’m sorry” and really meaning it will go a long way.  But, only apologize if you really mean it.  Gallo suggests that you can show your sincerity by acknowledging the impact your slip-up had on the other person and what you’ll do differently next time.  If the slip-up is a bad one, you may need to work to restore the other individual’s trust in you.
7.  Suggest a path forward.  Suggest a plan to help make the situation right.  You will need to do this collaboratively so that both of your needs are met.  Personally, I don’t believe that just telling the person that you are not able to deliver is an appropriate course of action.
8.  Stop overpromising.  The next time you are approached with a request to help by doing a task, by taking on a project, etc., be up front about what you can and cannot do.  Ask questions to understand exactly what will be expected of you if you accept the request.  What’s the due date?  How will it fit in with your other commitments?  Make sure you really understand what you are saying “yes” to.
To get almost anything of consequence done, we need to collaborate with others.  And, that collaboration almost always involves making commitments.  Some are small, and perhaps inconsequential, some are substantial.  We do good for ourselves and for others by delivering on all of our commitments.
So, as you plan your day and your week pay particular attention to allocating time to deliver on your commitments.
Make it a great week.  .  .  .    jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Amy Gallo, How to Tell Your Colleague Your Colleague You Dropped the Ball, Harvard Business Review.
Liann Davey, You First:  Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done, Knightsbridge, 2013.