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?

Now, how may I help you?

How do we learn? How do we grow and become better? How do we learn that we did something wrong? By getting good and helpful feedback. When you are in leadership position you are expected to provide that feedback to your team. How do you do it? How do you give the right feedback in the right way? It all depends on what outcome you desire. There are many ways how to provide feedback but you can divide them into two categories based on what you want to achieve: feedback to motivate further development and feedback to correct undesirable behavior.

Feedback is not food

Most leaders like to practice so called sandwich feedback. In fact, it is the way how most of the leadership training courses would teach you to provide feedback. You start with something positive to build rapport and for a person to start listening, then you say what needs to improve and then finish again on positive side so the person feels good. You need to be very careful with this type of feedback. It may work in the developmental settings when you want also to motivate but it will not work when there is a real issue to be corrected. The danger of sandwich feedback is that by obscuring the corrective message between two positive ones you may hide it too much and the recipient will just not get it.

“Hi John, what a beautiful watch you wear today and isn’t the weather just great? Look I just saw your report and I think you could use a bit more organization and summarize the facts a bit better. But I really appreciate the effort you put into it and the formatting and colors you used are great. Just continue the great job.”

… ehm, is this the way to provide useful feedback? If you were John, would you know what to improve? In fact, would you feel you need to improve anything at all?

Developmental feedback

There are situations when you want to provide feedback to someone to develop his skills. His attitude is good, he is generally motivated to do the job but lacks on necessary skills. The intention is not to stop some undesirable behavior but to build new skills. For that it is important not only to provide insights into what the person needs to improve but also to provide encouragement so he or she wants to improve and leaves the conversation energized and ready to implement your feedback.

The way to achieve it is to end up on positive note that helps the person to feel good about the progress and about himself. You need to build the self-esteem of the person while not hiding the areas he or she needs to improve. This is the way evaluations at Toastmasters work (

“Hi John, thank you for coming. I was just going through your report and want to give you my thoughts on it. I can see you put lots of effort into it and I appreciate it. The way you are able to pull all the data together is just phenomenal. Now, how can I help you to make it even better next time? To get the most of the reports I would suggest representing the data in a form of a graph next time so the trends are more visible. I would also like to see executive summary at the beginning so I don’t need to go through the whole report unless there is something that catches my eye. I can see huge improvement from last time so focus on the graphs and the summary and you will get your reports to the next level.”

You may skip the last sentence, as it essentially makes it a sandwich, and instead offer help in a form of “If you are still unsure on how to make it better feel free to come to me with questions.” That way you make it half-sandwich which is more direct and in healthy environment is all what is needed.

Corrective feedback

Sometimes you don’t need to develop a skill or provide feedback on how to have reasonably good work even better but you want to give corrective feedback on behavior that is simply unacceptable and needs to be stopped or changed immediately. This is no time for sugar coating it or beating around the bush. It is also the most difficult type of feedback you may need to provide. So how do you approach it? By being very direct to drive the message home. You need to be very clear to ensure that there is no misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what you are trying to say.

“Hi John, I just saw your report and it just sucks. I told you several times and you never listen. It is just bad and you need to re-do it right now. Put some graphs there, summarize better and don’t come to me unless it is perfect. Don’t screw it up as always and for once just get it right.”

… ehm, very direct, very confrontational and most likely very inefficient as John is probably still not sure what he needs to change, plus he will most likely become defensive and not able to improve anyway. What he will most likely get from this ranting of yours is “My boss has a really bad day. There is nothing wrong with my report, he just doesn’t know what he wants.”

How to say it

To make the feedback direct and at the same time useful and “receivable” is to follow couple of basic rules

  • Know your team – it all starts days or months before you provide the feedback. If the person you want to give corrective feedback knows you, if he or she got some positive acknowledgement in the past and if you talk to them regularly and not only when you are unhappy there are more likely to receive your feedback
  • Make it safe – you need to ensure that the person is able to listen to what you are saying. You need to create environment when the person understands that you are not attacking but you want to help.
  • Use contrasting when needed – a nice method to help creating safety is to explicitly say what “you are not doing”; for example “The last thing I want is for you to feel angry about this. My goal is to give you helpful suggestions so you can grow at this company.”
  • Describe what you see but don’t interpret – never generalize and never interpret. You are not telepath so always talk only about what you observe. To achieve this use “I” instead of “You”. “You” often feels judgmental or patronizing and can put the other person in defensive position. It is better to describe everything in first person.
  • Don’t exaggerate – words like “always” or “never” should be never used as they generalize, will make the person defensive and will detract from the point you are trying to make
  • Describe impact on the person or on the team – sometimes it may help to reinforce the message to show the big picture and get the person to understand the natural consequences of his behavior. You are not threatening, you just want the person to understand how his behavior impacts his future, the team, the company.
  • Focus on future – don’t talk too much about past and don’t demand explanations of “why” as it will just lead to pointing fingers and finding excuses.
  • Don’t repeat the same point several times – that feels like nagging and at the end may dilute the message; say it once and as clearly as possible
  • Listen and get commitment – try to understand the position of the other person to make sure you are fair and at the same time you want to get commitment from the person that he or she will improve. It is also important to clarify anything that may be unclear and open to interpretations.
  • Create ownership – follow up is really important but you shouldn’t own it. If you want to create ownership by the person he or she needs to own also the follow up session.

“Hi John, thank you for coming. I wanted to talk about the report you gave me yesterday. There are couple of areas that I feel needs to be improved next time. I see you were able to gather an impressive amount of data and when I was going through it I had really hard time getting oriented in all the numbers. I feel some graphs would help and I’m also not sure whether I understand the implication of the data. What do you think about these observations?… [here you give John a chance to comment so it is more of a conversation and you are building ownership of John to include the graphs next time, maybe clarifying what type of graphs and how many] …This sounds good. So to summarize it, next time you will include couple of graphs to illustrate the most important trends and you will also include a short executive summary at the beginning. I want to help you to get it perfect, so can you get on my calendar one day before the next report is due so we can review the draft together?”

When to say it

Say it now! If you want your feedback to have the right impact you need to say it as close to the event you are commenting on as possible. In most cases it should be immediately after you observe the behavior you feel needs to be addressed. The only exceptions are when the person receiving the feedback or yourself are in emotional turmoil. If you are emotional you won’t be able to give a good feedback and you are likely to cause more damage than good. And the same applies if the recipient is emotional. Then you may want to postpone it to ensure that when you are giving the feedback it is being received.

Twitter type summary: “When giving feedback always keep the desired outcome in mind. Is it about corrective action or building self-esteem?”

What is your favorite way of providing feedback? What did work for you and what didn’t?

Human brain, the biggest liar of all times

The human brain is a marvelous piece of natural technology.  It has many features but there is one that is truly unique and distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom.  It can imagine things. The rest of the animals living on this planet need to see, hear, touch, and experience the world around to be able to react to it. We, the human beings can do all of that in our minds. Over the last couple of millions of years mother nature provided us with a part of brain called frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex. That is the part of the brain responsible for imagining and to be really effective it uses the same areas of brain we use when we see or hear things in real-time. That allows us achieve so much more than other animals but it also makes a powerful tool for feeding us misinformation and makes us puppets to our own cheating minds. In this post I will present couple of ideas described by Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness illustrated by everyday examples we all experience.

Our cheating memory

Our brain has a limited capacity to store information so it created a neat way how to do it. It stores just the highlights, just the key points from what we experience and not every single detail. When we want to retrieve that memory it gets the key points and extrapolates the rest. As you would expect it extrapolates the rest based on what we experience today and not what happened in the past. And not just on what we experience today but also on how we feel at that particular moment. This means that we essentially remember things the way we want them remember today.

For example do you remember how you felt when you tasted some food for the first time? I love to eat sauerkraut. And I also know that when I was young my mother always had to push me to eat it as I didn’t like it. Regardless how much I try to remember how it tasted back then and why I didn’t like it… I just cannot. Does the phrase “I don’t understand how I could ever live without this” ring a bell? At the other hand a food I really despise is sweet rice. Last time I ate it was when I was a child and I remember that I didn’t like it. I have no idea why. I didn’t taste it since then. My brain stored just the most basic information “sweet rice = no good” and no details around.

Our cheating imagination

The same as with the past memory applies to imagining our future. We focus only on the big picture and we don’t think about details. That is why we often overpromise on what we can deliver. We will just think about the highlights and will not think about all the small details around it.

A typical example for always busy people is to promise someone that we will have a dinner or beer with them on Friday next week. In our mind we see this picture: I just finished work at 5pm and together with friends head for dinner, get our favorite food, enjoy the conversation, and have a good time. Then Friday comes. We realize that the last meeting at work ends 5pm sharp and we need some more time to finish other tasks, it is raining outside and the weather is nasty, we are not particularly hungry, a customer just yelled at us and we are not in mood for a laugh and tomorrow morning we need to get up early to take our kids for a trip. We forgot about all these small details when imagining the future a week ago and now they are very real and visible so we pick up a phone and call our friends that we cannot make it. These little things were planned long time ago, our brain just didn’t take them into account when imagining the future. And the worst part? Our brain is cheating even now, because if we ignored him and went for the meal with friends we would have a great time…

Our brain protecting our feelings

When something bad happens to us our brain finds ways how to minimize the bad feelings about it (it finds excuses). This seems like really useful feature but it doesn’t explain why we still feel bad about some things. The trick lies in another aspect of how the brain works. It is more sensitive to changes than to total magnitude of an event. When the change is big enough, or the situation bad enough it triggers the internal psychological immune system. The brain then starts coming up with positive explanations to limit the negative impact on us and makes us feel a bit better about it. When the change is small, or just minor annoyance this internal system is not triggered. As a result we sometimes over-react, feel unreasonably upset with small things while coping much better with major disasters.

Just think about situation when some major project didn’t go as you planned, or you really screwed up. What has most likely happened was you coming up with explanations like “It wasn’t really my fault as I didn’t have all the information and no one supported me.” “I wasn’t really too interested in the project anyway, and we are better off without it.” And then compare it with situations when you get really angry with waiting too long in a line at the counter in super market or using bad language about the car ahead of you that took too long to get moving at the lights so you missed the green and need to wait two more minutes.

Since we are talking about things that irritate us let me make one more statement. We tend to remember unique situations more than common ones. And because of that our brain makes us think that they happen more often than they really do. So next time you get to the coffee machine in the office and it is out of coffee beans so you need to refill it and you say to yourself “Not again. Why does it always happen to me?” just consider the number of times it actually didn’t happen to you. You feel that it happens every day, but if you would start a diary and always make a note you would discover that it is just your brain lying to you and in fact it doesn’t happen that often as your mind makes you believe.

Our brain trying hard to make us happy

Our brain constantly tries to make us happy and altering the past in a way to protect us. When we make a decision our brain will find ways to justify that decision as the best one. As Daniel Gilbert notes “It is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience.” This is the reason why we feel anxiety when having to make a decision but feel relieved once the decision is done. In fact in majority of situations we feel really good about the decision made and we like the results and the more time goes on the more sure we are it was the best decision of our life.

Twitter type summary: “Human brain has an incredible power of imagination. And it uses that power to feed us misinformation and faulty facts.”

Do you have stories to share where your brain has failed you? Have it ever happened to you that you realized you remember things differently than they happened?

Asking the right question, the wrong way and at the wrong time

It happens to everyone from time to time that we ask questions we wish we haven’t or make a statement we later realize wasn’t the smartest thing to say. We regret it and we even go and apologize. We know deep inside that it simply wasn’t the right time or place to ask the question. So why are we doing this? What does it bring? What does it take away? And what can we do about it?

To take a rather simplistic view, the answer can be pretty simple in most of the cases. It is us trying to feel important, trying to contribute without having an actual useful content to convey, us being obsessed with a particular topic, us trying to show off. It is a human nature and in fact, asking questions is a very desirable behavior and as the saying goes there are no stupid questions. However, there is such a thing as asking the right question, but the wrong way and at the wrong time.

Just imagine this situation. You are a new manager on a meeting with your direct superior talking about budget needs for the next year. You don’t really understand how the process works, what is the required input, how the decision will be done. It is a totally appropriate to ask any sorts of questions to understand both the big picture and the details. Your boss is here to provide that level of detail needed for you to do a good job and he is here to explain how things work.

And now imagine asking the same sort of questions in totally different setting. You are on a meeting with several other managers and you are listening to the CEO talking about a strategy for the next five years. The budgeting topic is still on top of your mind and it is really important to you to understand it, so you ask the CEO, “and what about budget for this year?” See the difference? The CEO may answer your question in some general terms without really providing a detail answer as that is not the focus of the meeting. But even if he does, you have shown that you don’t pay attention and you may not even belong to that room. We are talking strategy here and you are asking about some tactical aspect. And if the CEO is not careful enough he may get into the details thus derailing the meeting. That way you got your answer, but you have missed an opportunity to discuss the strategy and see the big picture. And what is worse you robbed others of the opportunity too.

So how do you ensure you are asking the right questions at the right time?

  • Always focus on topic being discussed and don’t try to broaden it too much as it will dilute the original message
  • Always consider whether the question and the answer will bring something to the rest of the audience, if not, take it offline
  • Always consider whether you are asking the right person who is best suited to provide you the answer

And if you are not sure whether it is the right time to ask just say something like “Can we talk offline after the meeting? I have couple more questions about budgeting that may not be relevant to others.” That way you show that you understand the reason for the meeting, you value everyone’s time and you want to understand impact on topics important to you. It may very well happen that several participants will say “Hey, I would be interested in that too.” and it will be added to the meeting as a legitimate topic.

This being said, please, always ask as many questions as possible as that is the best way to learn 🙂

Coaching approach to leading people

We live in exciting new times when more and more people work in so-called knowledge based economy having jobs that require creativity, knowledge, passion, ownership and that inner feeling of doing something that makes sense and will make a difference. How do you lead people in such environment? Well, the good old carrot and stick don’t work anymore and you need to resort to more subtle ways of leadership.

One of the approaches you may take is to stop acting as a boss and start acting as a coach. How does a coach look like? Let’s take a look at analogy from sport. He is not the best athlete on the team, he may not be the biggest expert on the game, he is someone who sets a direction and enables his team to mobilize all their skills and tap their abilities to the extreme to win the game.

It works exactly the same way in business setting. You just need to understand the underlying principles that will guide your behavior and make you a successful coaching leader. Let me talk about couple of ones I consider important.


One of the basic beliefs of coaching is the idea that in heart people work to the best of their abilities and no one does anything bad on purpose. This essentially means that you need to trust your team and you need to show it in the way you behave and react. Even though you may believe that a particular person is not telling the truth or he has some hidden agenda, you need to get rid of these thoughts as they will inhibit your ability to be a trusting and trustworthy leader. The moment you start questioning honesty of your team it will show, it will reflect in the way you talk, act and at the end you will be seen as having some hidden agenda on your own.


Every behavior is correct or has some value in certain situations so always try to understand the context. Let me use a bit silly example here. You are walking in the hallway and encounter a member of your team who is raising his voice and yelling at a customer. Your first reaction will be anger and thought that this person is a bad at dealing with people and you need to talk to him and correct his behavior. So you come to him and tell him that this was totally unacceptable behavior. He should go and apologize to that customer and if you see him doing it once more you will fire him. As it turns out the person that was “yelled at” is half-deaf and you need to raise your voice when you talk to him.

How do you think your team member see you now? You just made a rush conclusion based on what you saw without understanding the context. Based on that conclusion you talked down a person doing just his job. How different would the situation be if you borrowed a page from the book of coaching? “I just saw you yelling at that person and I’m not sure why you did it. Can you help me to understand it?” “Well, the person is deaf”. “Interesting, I didn’t know that. Thanks for letting me know.” And that’s it. The message you send by this approach: I’m interested in what you are doing. You told me something interesting I didn’t know and I’m grateful for that.

No assumptions

Extension of the previous two points is important aspect of “every behavior has positive motivation”. Even if you don’t see it now, you should believe that it is the case. For example, you are on a meeting and you have disagreement with your peers or your boss. They disagree with your idea of how something should be done. Your conclusion is that they care only about themselves, hate the idea because you brought it up, they don’t understand what needs to be done. You are bitter and demotivated.

Now, just take a step back and ask yourself: “Keeping in mind that every behavior has positive motivation, what their positive motivation might be?”, “Well, maybe they try to prevent me doing something stupid that may hurt my career opportunities.” You still don’t know what really is behind the behavior, but this approach at least opens your mind to possibilities so you stop arguing and start thinking.

And then you simply describe the behavior you see. “Look, I see that you are saying this… and I feel rather demotivated. Do I understand it right or did I misread something?” You are essentially removing any wrong assumptions you may have made in your mind and getting back to the facts.


People have all the resources they need. Every single person on your team has all the resources he needs to be able to do his job. This is a strong belief that you need to build into your management style. As a leader who is using this approach you just need to “open the gates” so the person understands what resources he has at his disposal. It also means you need to be giving people the right job. Ideally, it is something just a bit above their current “proven” skill level so they are challenged to dig deep into their internal resources and find out something they didn’t know they have. That way they will grow.

There might be situations where the person may not have all the resources to finish successfully the job. That most likely means that you are giving him a wrong job. For example, you have a person fresh out of university who got his first job as an associate project manager. He has all the resources he needs for that particular role (helping more senior colleague, managing small project). If you task this person to manage project like “sending man to the moon” no amount of coaching will help this person as he is being tasked by something way above his internal resources and technical / functional knowledge. This person needs years of training and mentoring to be able to do it. So always task people with work that is challenging but they still have a real chance to succeed.

There are numerous other coaching tools and beliefs that can help you being a coaching leader. What is your favorite one that always worked for you?