No matter how hard you try or how many hours you work, you’re likely to disappoint a colleague at some point. You won’t be able to make every deadline or fulfill every commitment. But what if you have to let something slip that’s especially important to one of your peers? How do you tell them that you’re going to let them down?
What the Experts Say
“It’s inevitable that you won’t be able to live up to everyone’s expectations,” says Liane Davey, cofounder of 3COze Inc. and author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done. “There are too many priorities, resources are too scarce, and expectations are too high in today’s organizations.” At the same time, “we don’t like to disappoint people,” adds Sigal Barsade, a professor of management at the Wharton School. “We think they might be upset with us or it might damage our credibility.” But you can mitigate those risks by managing the situation well. The goal, says Davey, is to come away from the conversation with your colleague feeling “like allies that together made a tough call” rather than “like adversaries.” Here’s how to do that.
“People often avoid conflict by disappearing,” says Barsade. “They’ll stop emailing you if they owe you something, which can be infuriating.” Instead of hiding, address the problem right away, preferably while the other person can still find other ways to handle the situation, says Davey. For example, if you’re on the hook to deliver a report that you realize you won’t be able to get done, Davey suggests saying something like, “I think I’m in over my head. Do you want me to keep plugging along? Are there other people who can help? Do you have flexibility with your deadline?” If you wait until your counterpart has no other options, you’re putting them in a terrible position.
Prepare emotionally for the conversation
It’s hard to be clear when you’re concerned about upsetting a coworker or getting in trouble. “Most of us become indirect when we’re uncomfortable, so we add a lot of words,” Davey says. “It’s as if we think that spreading the disappointing news over 400 words makes it easier to hear.” Barsade notes that heightened emotions sometimes also cause people to err in the opposite direction: “Sometimes you get so nervous, you blurt it out in a callous way so you can just get the information out there.” So try to go into the conversation feeling as calm and centered as possible. Barsade recommends taking three deep breaths before starting.
You’ll feel better prepared — and less anxious — if you write down what you’re going to say and rehearse how you’re going to say it ahead of time. Davey likes to outline her thoughts ahead of time to “get the arguments in order and the logic down.” You might also prepare for different scenarios: What if the person gets upset? Or starts to yell? How will you react? Consider writing down some potential responses and reading them aloud to yourself a few times. This will help you take some of the emotion out of it.
Talk face to face
If you’re going to tell someone you let them down, it’s better to do so face to face, not over email. “A couple emoji and a winky face aren’t going to make it better,” says Davey. Plus, you’ll be able to better read the person’s reactions and convey a genuine apology. If you have to negotiate about how to get the project done or who’s going to do the remaining work, it’ll be easier to do that live. Of course, this might not always be possible, given project deadlines and office locations, but use the most interactive medium you can.
Tell it like it is
Start with a clear, concise statement: “I made a mistake” or “I didn’t get the project done.” “Take ownership,” says Barsade. Then provide some explanation but don’t belabor it; you should neither “hide nor showcase” your guilt, she adds. Davey agrees: “If you missed a meeting, you might be tempted to say, ‘Well, I wasn’t really needed.’” But the other person might have a different opinion. If you instead take responsibility for the mistake, “they might say, ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself.’”
Further Reading: HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work
A heartfelt “I’m sorry” can go a long way. But only apologize if you mean it. “A false sorry isn’t going to do any good,” says Davey. To show you’re sincere, accompany the apology with an acknowledgement of the impact your slip-up had on the person and an explanation of what you’ll do differently next time. Something like, “I know I said you’d have it on Wednesday so you’d have lots of time to get it done by Monday, and I’m sorry I didn’t keep my promise. That was my bad. Next time I’ll be more realistic about my schedule and give you a heads-up earlier if I’m at risk of not making the deadline.” You might have to work to restore the person’s trust in you. For example, on your next project together you might suggest, “Let’s set up a checkpoint a few days in advance of the deadline so you’ll have more confidence in my ability to get it done on time.”
Suggest a path forward
Next, lay out a plan for how you’re going to help make the situation right. This should be a collaborative process. “If you propose a solution that’s off the mark, you risk making the person angrier,” Davey explains. Instead, throw out a few ideas and ask your counterpart what she thinks. For example, say, “I know this is due on Tuesday. I was thinking that I could get it 80% there and hand it off to Sally.” Then ask, “Would that work for you? Would that meet your needs?”
The next time this colleague or another one approaches you with a request for help, be up front about what you can and can’t do. “Increase the other person’s awareness of what else you have going on,” Davey says. “Say something like, ‘Let me tell you what my priorities are and how this will fit in.’”
Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to say yes to everything. You can tell your colleague you’ll help another time when you’re less busy or in a more limited way, says Davey. For example, if a colleague asks you to write a 10-page white paper by next Friday, “don’t take the request at face value.” Figure out what they need most from you. If the answer is, “You always have the best ideas,” perhaps you can offer to brainstorm for an hour and create an outline for the paper but hand it off to another colleague to write it. “Use questions to understand what they are really counting on you for and what they can get someone else to do. They likely have other options for getting some of it done,” says Davey.
Principles to Remember
- Write down and rehearse what you’re going to say before you approach the person
- Apologize for the impact your mistake had on the person and their work
- Suggest ways that you can help make the situation right
- Delay the conversation — it’s best to go to the person right away so they have options
- Act defensively or overexplain what happened — own your mistake
- Accept an assignment at face value the next time around — see if you can contribute in a more manageable way
Case Study #1: Own up sooner rather than later
Mark Regus recently started working at a law firm that was larger and more prestigious than his previous employer. He felt like he had a lot to prove, so when one of his colleagues, a peer who had been serving as his mentor, asked him late on a Tuesday evening to write a motion that he needed by the end of the day Wednesday, Mark jumped to help. “I was happy to accept the assignment because I didn’t have anything else on my plate for the next day,” says Mark.
Mark worked on the motion for a few hours on Tuesday night and then again on Wednesday. He was making good headway until one of his clients reached out that afternoon with an urgent request. “I had to prepare an emergency motion,” he says.
He was still confident he could get his colleague’s assignment done if he worked through the night. But “by the morning, I had hit a complete wall, and my brain was not even capable of managing another 10 minutes, let alone the two or three hours necessary to produce decent work,” he says. Reluctantly, he handed over what he had, even though he knew “it was awful.”
Mark realized that he had failed in two ways: he hadn’t produced good work and he hadn’t communicated with his colleague. “I decided I needed to do the adult thing and speak with him in person. I wanted him to understand what happened and that I recognized the quality was extremely poor,” he says.
Mark admitted that he’d screwed up, acknowledged the impact — his mentor had to set aside his own work to rewrite the motion — and explained what he would do to be sure it didn’t happen again. He also explained how embarrassed and sorry he was. Mark’s colleague appreciated the apology and told him that he only wished he had informed him of the problem sooner.
“In the end, we agreed to work through this,” Mark says. “I know it will now take more to prove myself to him, but I’m determined to do so.”
Case Study #2: Be straightforward
Derin Cag, the cofounder of Marketing Runners, had been working with his business partner, Tim Campbell, for four months when they won a new project to develop a website, TheBlackFarmer.com.
At the outset, they’d agreed the site would take a month to build. But after working on the project for two weeks, Derin realized “that it wasn’t going to be that simple.” He had underestimated the amount of work. He thought there were only 20 pages to design within specific guidelines, but it turns out that there were going to be more than 50. The project was going to take at least twice as long.
As soon as Derin realized this, he reached out to Tim and didn’t mince words. “We were messaging each other at midnight, being the nocturnal entrepreneurs that we are,” he explains. “I told him, ‘The project is going to take longer than I originally expected, as there are more pages than I thought there would be.’ I decided to say things straight to the point. I didn’t make excuses because our business partnership is the lifeblood of our company, and honesty and integrity are the blood cells.” Derin apologized and suggested that they go back to their client and say they needed more time.
Tim was disappointed at first. But he quickly came around and “approached the situation with a positive mindset.” Tim even put in extra hours with Derin to make sure the site was delivered by the revised deadline.
“We communicated openly with the Black Farmer team, and everyone was happy even though the site was published later than originally scheduled,” says Derin.