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Why People Drop the Ball
In a coaching session recently, we discussed the curious case of chronically missed commitments.
I’m not talking about the one-off stuff — like those of us afflicted with never-ending illness in our households, or the other calamities we’ve all faced for the past few years.
I’m referring to the “I’ll set up time with you” person who never does. The, “sure, I’ll send that over by end of week“ line followed by crickets.
I've found that people who regularly break commitments fall into one of four camps — and this applies to all levels of seniority in an organization.
The first two are fairly straightforward and typically improve with skills development (training), as long as you can get your finger on where the challenge is.
These types include …
Type 1: Poor Systems
They struggle with time management, and tracking of commitments. It’s a genuine “yes,” but poorly supported.
Type 2: Task x Skill Mismatch
They may not have the skills required to do the job in the timeframe needed. This is tricky to navigate – because sometimes, there are real and perceived repercussions (loss of credibility, reassignment, loss of role) if uncovered. Overconfidence makes this worse.
The next two get a bit more nuanced, and typically require feedback and coaching.
Type 3: Operate on Default
They are issuing a “sure” that should be a “no” out of a belief that other people won’t notice or care when they don’t come through. This bad habit of defaulting to “yes” is really an issue of integrity and becomes a self–fulfilling prophecy.
Type 4: Not Onboard
They are pushing back. These are veiled “no’s” – ie. commitments with no real intent behind them out of a belief that saying “no” is not worth the discomfort. In this case, the person is not onboard with some part of the ask, and instead of saying so, they issue a “sure” and do nothing.
Note: the desire to please pours fuel on all four fires ( 👋 People Pleasers).
In order to dig out of the missed commitment trap, it’s really helpful to know what’s behind it. Here’s how I might approach a conversation, always in a 1:1 setting.
For direct reports:
One thing that will help these conversations go well is a strong overall relationship to begin with. I’ve written here about the three things to focus on when building those.
Here’s a quick story to illustrate how things aren’t always what they seem with peers:
I once rolled out a new planning process across a very senior group of leaders. After a good initial discussion, I started getting some engagement from all leaders except for one. My initial assumption was that he was pushing back on the process, so we sat down and I went into full persuasion mode on why the process would help for specific problems he had.
It wasn’t until a few one-on-ones later that I realized that it was actually a skills gap. He was very seasoned, but was in a very specialized senior role. The process of budgeting and strategic planning was actually new to him, and not something he was comfortable jumping into without some support.
Once I realized this, I was able to lean in and work directly with him as a thought partner, instead of as a taskmaster. It shifted the dynamic of our relationship too, and became a really productive partnership.
Special note on your Type 1 Commitment Missers (Poor Systems):
If the person is your direct report, the best option is training (especially versus micromanagement): My first manager at PayPal had me take “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and “Getting Things Done” — look into any available stipends at your company and strongly suggest they make the investment.
If the person is your peer, and I’m saying this to the former project/program managers in the audience: try to contain yourselves. It’s very easy to slip into project management mode in service of others. This is a slippery slope that blurs accountability. Stick to the above structure, suggest training (or an admin), and keep moving.
Here are some general tips on how to navigate these conversations:
Consider this a discovery conversation, not an interrogation. Seek to understand before assuming they are acting out of disrespect for others or their time.
Watch body language closely and look for signals that you may be hitting on something (arms crossed, leaning back – not it; leaning in, shifting in chair – you’re probably close.)
Practice active listening (play-back to ensure you’ve heard correctly) and be grateful for any candor – giving and receiving feedback respectfully is an act of trust. Treat it that way.
No need to solve all problems in a single discussion. Feel free to acknowledge and sit with feedback before coming back with a response.
Demonstrate that you respect and value their word by holding them accountable to it (key for your Type 3s!) — this doesn’t mean checking in constantly, or unnecessarily escalating. It means that if they miss going forward, you’ll: 1) notice, and 2) make the adjustments needed to keep the effort on-track.
When someone continues to miss commitments, it’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusion, get frustrated and frankly, want to give up. I’ve found that it’s sometimes possible to dig in, get to the heart of what is happening, and why – and then work your way out of it.
What is your experience with any of these four Types?
I would love to hear any examples of how you all have worked through missed commitments, and anything above that I may have missed!
Got an embarrassing question?
Your responses to my recent “advice column” prompt (answers coming soon!) got me thinking: What is your strategy, ops or leadership-related question that you’d only ask your most trusted mentor?
Respond here and send it over. I’ll publish with a response — all anonymous.
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