How to break a promise and retain credibility

None of the suggested solutions to retaining credibility in the above sub-headline ever work. They will only serve to brand anyone who has reneged or had to walk back something as a blowhard, fabricator or worse.

The common phrase, using a censored PG substitute for the first word, “stuff happens,” says it all. Unfortunately, some of the best projections and positive assertions about a good outcome don’t always come true in business. This can happen because of faulty thinking, trying to engender excessive enthusiasm for the team or even overstepping a leap of faith. The reality in business and in life is that dreams don’t always come true. When this negative result occurs in a company, speed counts. An organization’s constituents should never learn through the grapevine that something has gone awry and that what was perceived as a promise has or will fall flat or short of the mark.

The good news is that well-intentioned covenants that fail are usually eventually forgiven, provided whoever made the promise takes the hit, admits the negative miscalculation and provides facts that precipitated missing the target. Combine that with putting on the hair shirt and then explaining what the next steps will be and why the outcome is likely to be reached without another disappointment. However, when still in doubt, simply say nothing more on the subject until the odds are nearing success. It’s OK to throw in extenuating circumstances and exogenous reasons for the disappointment, but make sure that the excuses are already well-publicized, and that the same problem affected many others in a like manner. COVID-19 is a perfect example but blaming the weather or some other common occurrence will do more harm than good.

If you’re the boss, that means the buck stops with you and having a subordinate deliver the unwelcome news is quickly perceived as a cop-out and will further denigrate your image as a leader and straight shooter. People are much more intelligent than corporate honchos sometimes give them credit for. Everyone, at some point, has had to break a promise. When the faux pas is exposed promptly and not veiled in a lot of woulda, coulda, shoulda, it’s highly likely that after the initial disappointment, your credibility might even be better than before you had to throw cold water on what was promised initially.

It’s important to understand that a prognostication is not a warranty. It’s not an ironclad guarantee because, typically, what is stated is based on what you know when the declaration was made, and promises don’t include hard and fast statements of facts lest they become warranties, which carry penalties for non-delivery, from a legal perspective.

If a company has never had to walk something back, it’s usually because they’ve never reached for anything aspirational, and they’ve probably followed a “Que sera, sera” mindset (whatever will be will be), keeping everyone in the dark.

When something goes south, it’s time to “man (or woman) up” and move on to fight another day. When you’re wrong, admit it and turn the page. ●

Visit Michael Feuer’s website to learn more about his columns, watch videos and purchase his books, “The Benevolent Dictator” and “Tips From The Top.”

Michael Feuer

Founder and CEO