Why People Don’t Do What They Say And What To Do About It
Have you ever taken someone’s word only to be disappointed later? As a new entrepreneur, I’ve encountered my fair share of big promises followed by little (if no) action. One of the hardest lessons I ever learned was that people have a right to lie and often do so to protect their own ego.
It is a timeless human reaction. Some would even call it a survival instinct.
People are people. We forget, we get distracted, and we generally want to be seen as good. But telling someone to change is unfortunately not going to make much of a difference. Even less so if they don’t “work” for you.
Unfortunately, we also live in a culture where it is socially acceptable to avoid conflict. Hence the recent popularity of “radical candor” where people are given permission to challenge directly while maintaining their so-called humanity.
I think Stephen Colbert first termed this as “truthiness”.
At the end of the day, the consequences of not doing what you say erodes trust. Of course. But that still doesn’t stop people, which is why the results often feel personal. And strangely passive aggressive.
I was stunned when a stranger confided in me that he had a cold, but told everybody he had allergies so they would be at ease. For their sake. And yet it did not bother him that he quite possibly infected everybody he was interacting with.
In some cases like this one, you may not have the luxury of the truth. However, you have the benefit of reality. Which leads us to some practical tips for dealing with these types of good intentions.
“Hell is paved with good intentions.”
-John Ray, English naturalist
Unpacking the cold vs. allergy scenario, I initially asked this man what he was allergic to. And I think his lack of sufficient answers led him to confide in me instead. In the end, I felt bad for him. He should be at home resting, but instead his ego drove him to go to work, lie, and risk others’ health.
In the same way, ferreting out the tendency to over-promise and under-deliver requires details:
- How long do you think that would take?
- Can you help me understand the steps this would require?
- What’s the most interesting part of this to you?
If this is a pattern, you could even gently reference the past and wonder how taking on this new task is different. Or better, offer to pair that person up with someone who is more accountable.
The questions drive home reality to the person promising a lot, and their answers will give you some basis to track progress as well as understand their motivations.
Manage The Scope
If this personality works for you, one tactic would be to break up projects into smaller tasks. Then ask the person to check in with you regularly. When some part is slipping, then at least you’ll hear about it sooner rather than later.
Even better, if the task is something you have done before, draw out what the answer should look like in broad strokes. Templates are great training wheels.
There seem to be fewer options if this person is a co-worker. It’s a sleigh ride to frustration. The key here is to document and share.
As much as possible, make sure there is a third person on communications. This gives everyone a buffer to behave. In my experience, an unhealthy personality that is quick to blame and not contribute reflects a deep insecurity that can too easily make you a target.
At the same time, tailor messaging and requests to their strengths. And always give them an out – for example, acknowledging how busy they are followed by an offer to draft something for them.
Is this more work for you? Yes. Will the work get done? Yes. Can you change them? No.
Another secret to dealing with this type of person is to accept them, which is perhaps what they really want – which is why they talk big. Another harsher word for this is deception. There is a tendency to want to achieve so badly that one is willing to bend the truth.
(Read more…Difficult People Decoded: The Achiever)
If you can accept them for these empty calories, then there’s a chance to move beyond.
Call it compassionate indifference. You see them for who they are: good, bad, and ugly. You can work with them (even if it means you doing most of the work). And you know it won’t last forever.
A final caveat is it’s easy in corporate environments to witness these same types succeed to the highest levels. It can be discouraging, set a bad precedent, and sow the seeds of a toxic culture.
Do not let somebody else’s bad behavior convince you that this is just the way it is, corporate culture or otherwise. It is that way there, but not everywhere.
That’s why it’s important to talk to a mentor outside your company. They can give you a sanity check, practical insight, and ultimately hope.
Let’s do this.