The over-promising trap

I was recently discussing a large-scale project with some of its leaders. As they looked back on the effort, they agreed that one of the key problems was promising too much, too quickly.

Without carefully talking to the people on the ground, institutional leadership made public statements about how much better the system was going to work, and how quickly it would happen. The system didn’t live up to expectations. We’ve all seen that same thing. For a variety of reasons, leaders often promise more than their staff can deliver.

When we think about the leadership competency of delivering on one’s promises, it’s easy to think about the personal side. As a leader, I try hard to do what I said I was going to do. But sometimes I am making promises for my unit or project team. With the best intentions, I can estimate timelines, costs, and outcomes that end up not being met.

Making the best guess when all the data isn’t available means that we will sometimes be wrong about our predictions. When that happens it’s important to own the mistake and review it to avoid the same thing in the future.

At the same time, we can try to be realistic about the expectations we set. Change is hard, and new systems rarely work perfectly the minute the switch is flipped. Helping people have a realistic picture of what to expect can make the effort more successful in the long run.

Dee Anne Bonebright

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