The Right Way to Break a Promise

No one likes to break a promise, but sometimes it’s inevitable. You suddenly have a work emergency that takes priority over another project, or you encounter some unexpected roadblocks to completing an assignment. Or perhaps there is a family matter that takes precedence.

The question is: how do you do break the news preserving your reputation and the relationships?

I thought of this recently because a friend told me how she had to tell a co-worker she couldn’t help out with a project, as promised. She was running behind on her own deadlines and realized she just couldn’t make good on the favor without sacrificing her own work.  The colleague–let’s call her, Melissa- was steamed and wouldn’t return phone calls. My thoughts? It didn’t have to work out this way.

Here’s what you should do if you need to break a promise:

1.     Give advance notice. My friend broke the news at the last minute because she dreaded making the call. That’s understandable, but a realistic look at her obligations and commitments might have helped prevent her from getting into this time bind. And certainly, the minute it becomes obvious that you might have difficulty meeting your commitment you should give that person a heads up. No one likes receiving that news, but being told in advance means the other party can make contingency plans. It’s another matter entirely when you back out last minute.

2.     Apologize personally. My friend was so nervous to tell Melissa, she had her boss make the call. She figured having an authoritative voice convey the information would make it more palatable, but the reverse was true. Melissa felt slighted, as though my friend couldn’t be bothered to deal with her personally.

Read the rest at BNET.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of the Reinventing You. She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, the National Park Service, and Yale University. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.