Don’t Promise

We’ve all been there.

A customer’s upset. They make a demand. Maybe it’s reasonable, quick, easy, and no big deal. Fine. But sometimes it’s unreasonable given the context and situation. And we give in.

Promises to placate rarely end up well. Sometimes you’ll do anything to avoid the immediate pain of saying no. And since in the near-term there’s little cost to saying “yes”, promises feel like a bargain. But while promises are cheap and easy to make, actual work is hard and expensive to do. If it wasn’t, you’d just have done it now rather than promised it later!

Promises are like debt — they accrue interest. The longer you wait to fulfill them, the more they cost to pay off.

One of the biggest costs is regret. Past promises are often met with current regret. Once it’s time to get to work, you realize just how expensive that “yes” really was.

You promised someone you’d release that new feature or product by the end of the year. Sounded totally reasonable in April — “sure, we’ll have plenty of time to get to that!” — but now that it’s November, you have to scramble.

Things that were slated get pushed off. People have to get reshuffled. Teams reassembled. Priorities put on hold. Other things delayed. New ideas take a backseat to old ones. All because of a simple “yes” to dodge the pain of saying “no” months ago.

Many companies are weighed down by prior obligations of placation. Promises salespeople made to land a deal. Promises the project manager made to the client. Promises the owner made to the employees. Promises one department made to another.

The further away the promise, the easier it is to make. And the more painful it is to ultimately deliver. That’s because when the time comes to fulfill the promise, Employees would rather be working on new ideas rather than old promises. You have to put aside progress to make up for the past. Tomorrow waits for yesterday.

Morale takes a hit when the past continually snaps you backwards. Energy and will is sapped. Undesirable past obligations are a constant source of stress and frustration. People leave when they feel like the work they’re doing today is last year’s work.

It might feel difficult in the moment, but you’re far better off saying no in the first place. Take the short term pain that goes away quick vs. the long term pain that sneaks up on you and intensifies as obligations come due.