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

Steve Boese Communication, HR, HR (& Life!) Advice, Performance, Steve Boese

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.

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.