How to deal with broken promises

If you manage people I’m pretty sure that sooner or later you will encounter a situation where your employee will promise to do something and then fails living up to his promise. And it is not just your direct subordinates, it might be your peers, bosses, spouses or kids. How do you deal with such situations? And more importantly how do you address it when this behavior repeats?

When you look at reasons why people don’t deliver on what they promised you can find a plethora of excuses. Why did you come late? – There was traffic; Why didn’t you deliver the report? – There was too much work; Why didn’t you finish on time? – There were unexpected circumstances. These are all just excuses, ways to mask the real problem in the background. It may be issue of ability to get the job done, it might be question of motivation or as mentioned by Kerry Patterson in Crucial Accountability it might be a question of pattern that was set previously by accepting this behavior.

Set expectations

It all starts a long time before the first issue pops up. When you are building your team make sure you spend enough time with them and that they are used to getting both positive and corrective feedback from you. If people know that you have their own good in mind they will be more receptive to anything you say and it will be much easier for you to address any issues. If the only time you talk to your team is when you have something negative to say you won’t be able to create safety and people won’t receive the feedback well.

The best way to prevent the need for dealing with broken promises is to set the right expectations at the beginning. Explain what you expect to get done, explain what sort of behavior is and is not appropriate and explain how you want to work together. However, if all these things don’t work and you get to a point when corrective feedback is needed you should jump right into it and address any issue as soon as it emerges. The moment you start tolerating unacceptable behavior you are essentially getting silent permission and it will haunt you down the road.

Create safety

The key part of providing corrective feedback or having an unpleasant discussion is to treat the other person as a human being. It is important to understand and accept their goals and them as people. You should never have that sort of discussion in front of other people. You don’t want to humiliate anyone, you want to be helpful and provide guidance for improvements. You also want to be sincere in this effort. If you go into the discussion with having only your own good in mind you will fail. You need to search for a win-win situation. You want to make sure that both your goals and the goals of the other individual are met at the end.

You also need to be transparent. If there is issue to be addressed then say so. Don’t try to sugar coat it or hide it behind some hyperbolical metaphors. If you feel that directly addressing the issue you may come across as personally attacking the other person use contrasting to calm the other person down. You may say something like this:

“I would like to give you some feedback. In no way am I trying to punish you or make you feel inferior. My goal is to ensure you understand my concerns and that we work together on addressing them.”

Address the issue

The first time you observe behavior that is not acceptable you should address it on the spot or as soon as convenient for both sides. Don’t interpret. Just state what you saw and explain the natural consequences of what happens if the behavior persists. This shouldn’t be in a form of threat but rather creating the big picture of what are the consequences for the person, for you, for the team. If you want to make sure that you don’t sound threatening use questions rather than statements.

“I just saw that you taking two chocolate bars instead of one. Do I understand it right that you planned to have both of these for yourself? The agreement was that each team member gets one chocolate bar to make sure there is enough for everyone. If someone takes two then chances are someone else will be left without any. Please, keep this in mind and I expect that next time you will follow the agreement.”

Address the real issue

What happens if the person repeats the same behavior even after you had provided the feedback and he agreed not to do it again? Having the exactly the same conversation for second or third time will most likely not help. Chances are that the person is just not taking it seriously and you need to get it to the next level. It is not about the original issue any more it is about larger issue of not following on his promises.

“I just saw you taking two chocolate bars again. I believe we agreed you will not do it again. Did I get it right that you took them for yourself even when you promised not to do it again? I feel like it will be difficult for me to trust you in the future if you wouldn’t keep the promises you give me.”

At this stage chocolates are not the issue anymore and it is about the fact that the person broke his promise and that is the behavior you need to correct. And once again you may describe the big picture and the natural consequences if he continues to break his promises. It might be that he won’t be trusted with important tasks, will not be able to get to leadership role and will be seen as unreliable by his colleagues.

Address one issue at time

Always focus on the most important issue. If you start piling up too many different issues you will dissolve your message and will not have the impact you intend. The person can then take the easy round and correct one of the less important issues so next time you talk he will be able to use it as a weapon and say that he corrected at least something.

So in our “chocolate bar” example it is obviously still an issue that he took two bars instead of one but it is nothing compared to the fact that he broke his promise to you “not to do it again”. So if he tries to get the discussion back to chocolate, don’t get derailed and keep it at the “broken promise” level. It will have much more powerful impact and will prevent many similar issues in the future.


It is important to provide follow-up feedback and especially acknowledge positive change in behavior. If you can show to the person that you see also his strengths and that you observed he improved the problematic behavior chances are it will further reinforce the message and drive even more improvements.

If you want to learn more tricks on how to provide good feedback check out “Now, how may I help you?” article.

Twitter type summary: “Always address behavioral issue as soon as you see it by providing direct feedback and explaining natural consequences.”

How do you deal with broken promises? How do you ensure that people get the feedback and deliver on their promises next time?

Photo: Shutterstock, Inc.

Categories: Communication, Leadership, Productivity

Tags: , , ,

5 replies


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