Balls All Over the Floor

Lately the hardest part of doing business has been managing my frustration over people not delivering what they’ve promised. Notice that there are two problems here—people not delivering and my reaction to it.


This is going to be part rant, part tips.

Here’s the rant—Is it so @*(#&$# hard to make a commitment and keep it? Do business commitments mean so little to people that they brush them off without a thought? This behavior seems shockingly rampant in my current world, and I’m not used to it. I’m not referring to any one person or entity here; the problem is that it’s everywhere.

I’ve been an over-achiever my whole life and apparently was also surrounded by freakishly responsible people because I’ve never had to deal with this level of nondelivery before. I’ve also never been a CEO before, so maybe I’m just getting a new view of the world.

Either way, here are some tips I hope the world will take to heart:

Set expectations. What creates friction is the misalignment of expectations and outcomes. This isn’t about getting a certain outcome; it’s about respect. It’s an old adage, but it’s true: it’s best to underpromise and overdeliver.

Admit Your Errors Quickly. Sometimes things are beyond your control. You simply can’t deliver what you promised. People will understand if you explain the reasons and act quickly. Don’t try to deny your role in the problem or brush off its significance.

My college roommate’s first job was selling advertising kiosks for a big one-time event in Seattle. She sold her heart out, closing hundreds of sales with local business owners. And then the kiosk-maker didn’t deliver. All those business owners lost their money and the opportunity to advertise at the event, but my friend went back to every owner in person and explained what happened. They were all furious, but at 22 she humbly took the wrath of every one of them, and they respected her for it. Today she is an incredibly successful Seattle businesswoman.

Be Realistic. If it really is beyond your control and you aren’t going to be able to deliver on your commitment, whatever you do, don’t make another promise you can’t keep in an attempt to make your customer/partner/employee feel better in the short term. If you told me you can deliver 20 widgets, don’t tell me you can only deliver 10 and then send me 6.

On a more general level, learn how to say no so you don’t overcommit. Overcommitment leads to broken promises.

Compensate People for Your Error. Earning back trust is difficult, but it can help to make a gesture to show that you know you were wrong and caused the other party some kind of pain. If you can do it, a refund or partial refund is always a good idea. Don’t make them ask for it. (If I miss your birthday, you’re always going to get an amazing guilt-driven gift.) If the commitment isn’t about money, go out of your way to make up for the disappointment some other way.

Do Your Job. Just do your job. (Is it really so hard?) You have a job because what you do matters to someone. Whether you’re serving free coffee at homeless shelter or are the CEO of a multinational corporation, you have a job because other people need you to do what you do. Your performance reflects directly on you and affects other people. Don’t assume your job doesn’t matter. Don’t make me nag you to do your job. Just do your job.

Ask Yourself If It Is Really Not Possible. Is it really true that you CAN’T deliver what you promised, or is it just easier for you not to. If it’s just easier, as yourself if ducking out is really worth causing your customer/partner/employee to lose confidence in you. Because they will.

Dealing with Frustration

Sadly, at this point I’ve lost hope that people will suddenly be true to their word. So the other problem that is ruining most of my days is dealing with the frustration that comes from all these interactions. I recognize that sometimes it’s my own fault I’ve had a bad day because I let things get to me. Here are some of the things I’m trying to reduce the stress. If you have other ideas, I’d LOVE to hear them. Please leave a comment.

How Much Does It Matter? I try to keep things in perspective. Although the cumulative effect of five broken promises in a day makes me want to break the neck of the fifth person no matter what they’ve done, I try to ask myself if that fifth broken promise really matters. Sometimes, although it’s a disappointment, it’s not worth sending my blood pressure through the roof.

Can I Change It? For some problems there are no solutions. To avoid burning bridges, I’ll use a generic example: If I’m already out the door of Starbucks with my coffee, and I don’t have time to go back or go somewhere else, it’s my own fault if I spend an hour fuming because my latte is hazelnut instead of vanilla. (My problem here, in real business, is that because I’m in charge, I feel as if it’s my responsibility to get resolution even though it sometimes isn’t possible.)

Address the Disappointment Directly. If someone has let me down, I try to deal with it right away. If I hold it in, it doesn’t give them the opportunity to fix the problem. This is a struggle because it’s not in my nature to complain. I’d much rather pretend everything is just fine, but in the end, that doesn’t do anyone any good.

Take Breaks. Working day and night is not a recipe for keeping things in perspective. Lately I’ve been trying to take more breaks.

Ask If There Was a Misunderstanding. Maybe my expectations weren’t clear. Maybe there was a misunderstanding. Maybe the e-mail that explains everything is in my spam folder. I try to take a breath and get clarification before I assume someone has dropped the ball.

Consider Terminating the Relationship. Sometimes it’s never going to work. The hardest point is figuring out if the situation is unfixable. This is almost always a judgment call. Can you trust someone when they say they’ll do better in the future or they didn’t mean to disappoint? Are they providing enough of what you need so that you can overlook the problems? Is it worth all the pain and hassle of ending a business relationship to avoid future problems? Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. As a friend says, “Never set a standard; you’ll just be held to it.” So I’ll acknowledge right here that I’m not perfect either. But I do my best and I expect others to do their best too. Thanks for letting me get this off my chest.

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5 Responses to Balls All Over the Floor

  1. I couldn’t agree with you any more on these points. As an organizer of several Podcamp events, I know that I need to depend on other people to follow through as they have promised. There have certainly been times when someone has not followed through as expected or in a reasonable time frame, and I beat myself up about it, thinking if I only had better people management skills, it would have been better.

    In the end, it makes you a bit more wary about trusting others sometimes, especially with “mission critical” items, but then you gradually learn you can’t do it all and have to learn to trust others. But if someone doesn’t follow through as promised, they also aren’t entitled to infinite second chances- second chance is a singular, not plural thing.

    I am glad to see others feel this way- I always thought it was my lawyer side that demanded that people just do what they said they were going to do, or at least inform you if it becomes an impossibility- leaving someone waiting on you or standing on the proverbial alter, is unfair, and it erodes trust fast.

    I hope you have a better day tommorrow!

  2. Greg Galant says:

    Great article! Love the line “Notice that there are two problems here—people not delivering and my reaction to it.”

    It’s amazing how little a handshake or promise means to so many people in business. Good advice on how to cope. I find you have to just work with a whole lot of people to figure out who delivers and who’s just all talk.

  3. paulie walnuts says:

    fantastic post. nothing revolutionary or new. yet it needs to be said. now it just needs to be read.


  4. Pingback: Article Recommendation: Balls All Over the Floor » talkin’ about

  5. fm lyons says:

    When I see a spade I call it a spade.
    This is my problem because I have no tolerance for LIARS. In my personal life when I have to live within a relationship that has a liar. I point out the obvious infraction at the scene of the lie and after a little squirming I end it by saying, “That is a lie!” or “You are a liar!” He then becomes angry because I have embarrassed him in public. Imagine that, humph!
    In a business situation when people don’t follow through and/or lie to me for fear of losing my job or leaving a bad impression I ‘shine it on’, act like it didn’t happen, ignore it in other words I allow myself to be verbally abused hence setting a trend for future lies and bad business relationships. Think about it.

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