To ‘under-promise and over-deliver’ is a sham

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There are dozens—perhaps even hundreds—of tired, clichéd, and hackneyed “inspirational” business, leadership, and management quotes that should be retired and probably eliminated from our collective consciousness.

I recently offered a list of such quotes on my blog. In my haste to publish that piece, I failed to included a quote (really more of a business/performance maxim) that I also can’t stand, which is the “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.

It’s appalling that this idea—that purposefully misleading your customer or boss about what you can accomplish in order to fabricate unearned glory by surpassing your own inaccurate estimates of cost/effort/time to deliver—passes for good advice.

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 affect other plans or aspects of my business?

Your desire to “over-deliver” doesn’t let that happen, and I have to assume that your “under-promise” was actually an accurate projection. 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. 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 disdain for the concept. It turns out that the glory and good will 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. Moreover, 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.

Epley observed, “Going above and beyond a promise didn’t seem to be valued at all,” and that research subjects consistently valued promise-keeping and promise-exceeding essentially equally, and did not confer additional status upon nor evoke fundamentally better opinions of people who exceeded promises, compared with people who simply kept promises.

The fascinating finding was that failing to keep a promise can cause so much damage—damage that is not offset by exceeding some other promise—that business people should invest time and resources into meeting expectations and not worry about 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: Get better at estimating costs and project timelines, use data and experience to guide your commitment, be more honest, and don’t be a such a goldbrick. If you do “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 couldn’t give a hoot if they arrive two days early.

A version of this article first appeared on FistFulofTalent.

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