At a glance
Waiting on someone else to fulfil a business obligation – only to be let down – is a familiar experience for most people in the workplace.
The opposite experience is often equally familiar – making a promise to complete work but, as the day approaches, realising all too clearly that it cannot be done in time.
Both scenarios are hugely anxiety-inducing. Both can be avoided with planning and the right approach to communication. It all starts with being realistic about what can be accomplished.
1. Timing is everything
Victoria Mills, CEO of coaching consultancy Hello Coach, says, “Before taking on a new client or job, think about whether you have the capacity for it. Don’t promise anything you can’t deliver”.
This is crucial during busy periods like end of financial year. “If you don’t have the time to do a task properly, then you’re not the best person for the job. Don’t be afraid to say that. It’s better to be honest from the outset than set somebody up for disappointment,” says Mills.
Business strategist Andrew Griffiths says the risk is that you will do untold reputational damage if you repeatedly fail to keep your promises.
“Once we appreciate this, we are far more motivated to avoid making this mistake. The key is being very organised and being an exceptional communicator,” Griffiths says.
It is also important not to take on work you do not want to do or that you are doing only because you think you should. Instead, refer the work on or say it is not a project to which you can commit.
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2. Manage misunderstandings
Misunderstandings between co-workers about deadlines, commitment to a project or tasks to be completed can happen easily. Emails are a great example. Some people respond to emails immediately, while others take their time.
If you fall into the first category, those in the second may seem rude or unresponsive if they do not fire off a reply immediately. However, people may simply have different communication styles.
“Sometimes people need a bit of time to form their views or come up with ideas,” Mills says.
Projects can also unravel when expectations are misaligned. The more time you take to agree on expectations before a project starts, and confirm these in writing, the less likely it is that issues will arise later.
Doing the bulk of the work at the start of the project and holding team members accountable to milestones are other ways to keep things on track.
3. Know when to say "No"
A common problem is feeling unable to say no to work, even when overloaded.
This is particularly common for new employees and those who do not have insight into upcoming projects.
“I really struggled with this in the early stages of running an advisory firm. As my reputation grew, so did the demands on my time, simply because I couldn’t say no to work,” says Griffiths.
Over time, Griffiths realised one challenge he needed to address was clients putting him on the spot.
“I would always say "Yes" even when I knew I couldn’t deliver, so I developed the strategy of not immediately committing to a project.
Now, when clients ask if I can take on a job straight away, I tell them I need to check my schedule and workload, and I’ll get back to them. This gives me room to decide if I want to do the project and the opportunity to politely decline if I can’t,” he explains.
4. Communicate about problems
If you have accepted an engagement, but you realise you cannot meet a deadline, let the other party know as soon as possible.
“Set clear expectations at the start of a relationship and have weekly or bi-weekly one-to-one meetings to avoid any issues escalating. When communicating about a problem, use neutral, open body language,” says Mills.
“Be an active listener and acknowledge and respect personal differences,” she adds.
“If there are roadblocks with a project as it progresses, it is a good idea to explain the problem, apologise and give the client options for moving the job forward. This is a mature and professional approach that will normally work for all involved.”
5. Be honest
Christina Foxwell, global CEO and founder of Ignite Purpose, says you should not be afraid to renegotiate if a project goes awry.
“You are only human, and sometimes you will face challenges. Rather than avoiding the problem or overcompensating, have an honest conversation about what’s happened. Don’t lie, make up a story or blame others. People appreciate honesty,” she says.
While it may be tough, telling the truth in a difficult situation is the best way to maintain trust and authenticity. Then you can collaborate to handle the setback, which will ensure you maintain the relationship short term and into the future.
This is the best way to demonstrate your professionalism and build goodwill over time.