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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Here’s How to Go Back On Your Word at Work (Professionally)

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“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have,” says Tim Ferriss in his book, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.

It’s a real paradox: The conversations we try to avoid are the ones that benefit us the most in the long-run. Basically, being vulnerable (or willing to have “the talk”) helps people relate to and respect you—and the more people respect you, the more invested they’ll be in your success.

One of the hardest conversations you might have at work is one where you have to go back on your word—you can’t meet a deadline, you can’t help out with a project, you’re unable to reach your quarterly goal.

Since most people don’t love it when we break promises (who does?), our first impulse is usually to find an excuse to avoid responsibility altogether. But, doing this only alienates people, which then makes them less forgiving.

A few weeks ago, for example, I realized I couldn’t achieve the revenue numbers I’d promised my investors without sacrificing my company’s other goals—like hiring a great team and responding to customers’ feedback.

I contemplated all the elaborate stories I could tell to make it seem like this wasn’t my fault. But then I realized—I didn’t want that kind of relationship with my investors. I wanted them to understand my goals and rally behind them.

So, I explained why growing the team and fixing the product were so important to me. I talked about how much progress we’d made and how much more I believed we could make with more attention to those areas. Then, I detailed the logistical reasons we couldn’t bring in the revenue I’d predicted. At first, they were skeptical. But, once I explained myself fully, they were glad I was focused on the right things.

Here’s what that experience taught me about going back on your word and using those tough conversations to your advantage.

Tell the Full Truth

I knew my investors wouldn’t like hearing what I told them—but who trusts people who only tell them things they want to hear? By being honest with them, I actually conveyed that I respected them enough to let them in on the truth. I showed that I wanted to provide them with useful information, not just save my own ass.

And, I had nothing to hide. I just had to make them see where I was coming from. Once they realized I was working toward the company’s best interests—even if that meant letting people down—they respected me more.

Explain Your Reasoning (in Detail)

People often go into meetings with a vague and formal approach, simply reporting what they’re doing and ignoring the reasons why as if they’re irrelevant.

But, when you explain why you’re doing what you’re doing, you connect with others on a human level and put your ideas into context. By sharing feelings other people can relate to, you help them understand why they might do the same thing in your situation.

So, if you need to take extra time on a project or bail on a meeting, let your co-workers in on your thought process. The more details you give, the more easily they can put themselves in your shoes and forgive you.

Don’t Make Excuses

There’s a difference between reasons and excuses. Sometimes, you have to go back on your word for a valid reason, and the people your decisions affect deserve to know what that reason is.

But other times, you make mistakes. In that case, trying to explain your choices will only make it seem like you’re justifying them.

When we’re accused of wrongdoing, whether by a colleague, our boss, or someone else, we always assume people want to hear something that mitigates what we’ve done. But, what they really want to hear is us own up to it.

I practice doing this when I’m late to meetings. It’s tempting to blame traffic or delayed trains, but instead I just say, “Sorry I’m late!” I’ve yet to see anyone give me a hard time for saying this—because you really can’t argue with an honest apology. (Although if this happened a lot, that might not be the case.)

If you need some help pulling this off, try one of these templates for delivering a genuine “sorry.”

Let People React

If a co-worker gets mad at you for going back on your word, let them be mad at you. (Sometimes, they have a right to be!) Listen to their complaints. Anger only escalates when you invalidate it—as you probably know, people get louder when they feel they’re not being heard. If you admit to your mistakes and accept their emotions, people don’t feel the need to point them out and are more likely to move on.

In fact, after people air their complaints, thank them for being honest with you. Even if you disagree, they’re just trying to help you understand their perspective. And the more you understand one another, the better you’ll be able to work together going forward.

To avoid needing to break promises in the first place, I start by making very conservative ones. Instead of immediately telling someone, “I’ll do this,” I say, “I’ll do this under X circumstances.” This way, I’m less likely to disappoint or startle them if plans need to change.

We can’t always predict what might get in the way of our work, and that’s OK. Admitting you misjudged a situation shows humility, which helps you and your co-workers connect on a deeper level. Everyone can relate to someone messing up, but nobody can relate to someone with a perfect excuse for everything.