No One Cares If You Over-deliver—Only If You Fail To Deliver

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There are dozens—perhaps even hundreds—of tired, clichéd, and hack “inspirational” business, leadership, and management quotes that need to be retired and probably eliminated from our collective consciousness. I even offered a starting list of such quotes on my blog a few weeks ago. But in my haste to publish that piece, I failed to included a quote (really more of a business and performance maxim) that I also can’t stand, which is the familiar “under-promise and over-deliver” chestnut that passes for good advice when dealing with commitments of any kind—be they to customers, your boss, or your friends.

That this idea—that somehow purposefully misleading your customer or boss about what you can accomplish in order to fabricate some kind of unearned glory from surpassing your own inaccurate estimates of cost/effort/time to deliver—passes for good advice is really appalling. Wouldn’t it be better, (and more honest) if we just accurately promised and then delivered performance in line with that promise? If I as a boss or a customer knew in advance that the project would likely be completed a week before the “promise” date, don’t you think that might impact other plans or elements of my business? But your desire to “over-deliver” doesn’t let that happen, and the person has to assume that your “under-promise” was actually a real promise, even though you know it to be inaccurate (and possibly misleading). But later you get to bask in the glory of your over-delivery while I try to figure out how to make room in the warehouse for the 10,000 widgets you just shipped me a week early. Hooray for you.

So I can’t stand “under-promise and over-deliver” and, now, thanks to some recent research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, (summarized here) I just might have some proof to back up my hatred for the concept. It turns out that the glory and goodwill that you expect to accrue for yourself by over-delivering might not actually be happening at all.

The research conducted by University of California at San Diego behavioral scientist Ayelet Gneezy and University of Chicago business professor Nicholas Epley examined subjects’ responses to three types of promises: kept ones, broken ones, and then ones that were kept or met beyond expectations (the “over- delivery” scenario). The research found that while everyone gets upset when a promise is broken, it turns out that over-delivering on something won’t make anyone significantly more impressed by your ability. In fact, there was almost no change in people’s overall levels of satisfaction when they were given more than what they were initially promised and expecting.

Professor Epley observed, “Going above and beyond a promise didn’t seem to be valued at all,” and that, in the research, subjects consistently valued promise-keeping and promise-exceeding essentially equally, and did not confer additional status and did not form fundamentally better opinions of people who exceeded promises compared to people that simply kept promises. The really interesting finding was that failing to meet or keep a promise can cause so much damage, damage that is not cancelled out or balanced by exceeding some other promise, that people and businesses should invest time and resources on striving to keep promises and not worry about going above and beyond or exceeding them.

So “under-promise and over-deliver” is a sham, and now I have research backing me up on this.

Here is what to concentrate on instead of trying to over-deliver:” Learn how to get better at estimating costs and project timelines, use data and past experience to inform your commitment, be more honest, don’t be a such a sandbagger, and finally if indeed you still “over-deliver,” factor that into your next round of promise making.

Mom only gets ticked if the flowers don’t get there by Mother’s Day—she could give a hoot if they arrive two days early.

FOT Background Check

Steve Boese
Steve Boese is fondly known to many as the HR Technology blogger. By day, he is the Co-Chair of Human Resource Executive's HR Technology Conference. He is also a former Director of Talent Management Strategy at Oracle and an HR Technology instructor. Steve can also be found hosting the HR Happy Hour Show and Podcast … you know, where a bunch of HR pros get together and call in to talk about HR stuff. Sounds like an SNL skit, we know. But when you have Dave Ulrich, the grandfather of HR as show guests, well, I guess you’re doing something right.  Talk to Steve via emailLinkedInTwitter or Facebook.

7 Comments

  1. Ankita says:

    Here’s my take on why people prefer to under promise. You said that failing to deliver on a promise can cause immense damage. Under promising is a safer bet. Let’s say I promise to sell 100 SKU’s and manage to sell just 80 – I failed to meet targets and hence caused irreversible damage. On the other hand, if I promise 80 and deliver 100, I am on the safer side.
    I don’t personally advocate the “under-promise and over-deliver” concept but I can understand why it’s popular. The benefits of over delivering may be few but the risk of under performance is greater.

    Reply
  2. kd says:

    Steve –

    Get the point about over delivering loud and clear – and that”s been your performance level for a long time, so it’s easy to see why you would key in on that… But underpromising is just ensuring you lower the bar for simply delivering, right?

    KD

    Reply
  3. Sorry to disagree but, you tell a customer they’ll get it on Thursday, and you deliver on Tuesday, they will love you for it. Underpromise doesn’t meant you deliberately mislead them. It means don’t raise their expectations too high, and let them down. I might be able to get this done on Wednesday, I can definitely do it by Thursday, and if I get it done by Tuesday, fabulous. How is that appalling?

    Reply
  4. Asim says:

    I agree to retire “under promise and over deliver”…used it, heard it many times over the years. Particularly, around budget and goal setting times.
    Mostly from my bosses, now I think about it and agree its flawed. Mainly, because i was not able to precisely count on my deliverables. As it was tied in with others in a team setup.

    Nonetheless, looking back it when ever i under estimated my delivery and over delivered. It never really made sense or added value to the goals or my individual performance. Everyone gets this approach and the more you sandbag it, the more it labels you.

    Steve, carry on with your list of quotes to retire, I have a few to add…

    Reply
  5. Steve Boese says:

    Thanks for comments all – here is my take, (but I am really tired and distracted, so my replies might not be the best, but I will try) – see how I just under promised there?

    Ankita – I agree, and I think that is at least half the under promise strategy is so popular. But I think the other half, and what the study focused in on, was that the promise maker always thinks they will accrue some great benefit from over delivering, and the research suggests that isn’t true. So sure, fear of breaking a promise leads to under promising, but also a possibly erroneous notion of getting some kind of glory from surpassing promises is also a big part.

    KD – Agree, it is kind of the similar I think to what Ankita mentioned. And when people adopt the under promise strategy as a default, then all it means is they have defined their performance relative to a diminished goal that everyone will soon figure out is bogus.

    Richard – Sure sometimes that customer will be happy you delivered on Tuesday instead of Thursday. But not always. What if they scheduled their own staff and workflow around the promise of Thursday? What if they made downstream promises to their customers based on your delivery coming in on Thursday? What if they really don’t care about having it on Tuesday, as long as it was not delivered Friday, as the research suggests? I am more of the mind that hitting the promise-by date over time is more valuable than ‘over delivering’.

    Asim – Good points, especially about agreeing with me!

    Reply
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