A Fail-Proof Way to Get Coworkers to Keep Their Promises

It's easy for colleagues to promise they'll deliver at work. But making sure they really follow through? That's another matter entirely. Here's a fail-proof way to make sure they keep their promises.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #370

Why do things take so long? A few years ago, I did some work at a large organization we'll call Honking Big Company, Inc. Neither of us will ever be the same. In my first few weeks, we decided the company needed a website. Great! I'd set up my own website for my coaching business, and it's really pretty easy. And by "pretty easy," I mean that we could have a Wordpress.com blog up and running in about 5 minutes. I know this because I've set up three this week for various projects. If you want to host it yourself, then it takes 15 minutes, because you have to register the domain and upload the files, too. No, really. It only takes about 15 minutes. At Honking Big Company, it took over six weeks. Being a really curious kind of guy, I proposed a second website that should have taken 5 minutes. But this time, I watched closely to understand how five minutes turned into six weeks. The answer will shock you! (Not really. I've just been reading too many click bait headlines.)

Coordination Creates Delays

You see, when I asked one of the managers, "Can I create this WordPress site?" The answer was "Sure. Let me check with Sidney in branding. Because it has to be on brand, of course." Sidney was on the last day of vacation in Yellowstone Park, and when I sent a text (because that's what cell phones are about, right? Freedom from the office, so you can go on vacation and your coworkers can still expect to reach you even though you're free?). Sid promised to have the branding materials to me by Friday.

Friday came and went. No branding materials from Sidney. I sent an email, but no response. Then Sidney wrote back saying, "How about next Thursday?" Thursday also came and went. We rescheduled several times. It took five weeks, six days, 23 hours, and 45 minutes to get the branding materials. In the remaining 15 minutes, I got the site up and running. Elapsed time: six weeks.

Other People Don't Have Your Best Interests at Heart

The culprit was the same culprit that causes all our problems: other people. Especially in larger companies, even simple decisions need to be slotted into the corporate machinery, since other parts of the company will be affected by the decision. Every one of those people has different priorities than you, and your decision is an interruption in every one of their lives. It's almost certainly not top priority, which means getting you what they promise is likely to be pretty low on their priority list. (Unless they actually believe keeping work promises is important. That's so rare, though, that we needn't even consider that situation.) The more people who have to be involved in a decision, the more you must contend with all those broken promises. But what if you had a way to structurally make sure they'll keep they're promises? What if, indeed...

Respect People by Giving Them Slack

First, get people on your side. This means showing respect for them and their priorities. If you texted Sidney on vacation and said, "You lazy slacker! You need to make sure someone gets me those branding materials or I'll arrange to have you roasted alive in a geyser and fed to a bear!" You would be unlikely to get eager cooperation. So instead, you hear Sidney's proposal—branding materials by Friday—and you agree. This gets Sidney on your side. You do the same with Jordan, only instead of not-threatening with a geyser and a bear, and you don't threaten to take away the one pound bag of M&Ms Jordan thought no one knew was hidden in the lower left desk drawer. Either way, you don't threaten. You honor their priorities by letting them set an initial deadline.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.