Monday Musings, On Leadership
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Under promise and over deliver

One often hears the saying, “Under promise and over deliver.” It could even be labeled a Dad-ism. I know I’ve certainly said it more than once to my children over the years.

But some recent research suggests that it isn’t the best way to relate to customers, stakeholders, clients, and—perhaps—even children.

I began thinking about this old chestnut after being involved in a situation where someone promised several outcomes, none of which came to fruition in the timeframe suggested. The individual actually over promised and under delivered—a big issue in my book.

Here’s the Cliff Notes version of the story: I did a walking tour through downtown with staff from our local government to discuss several design and development issues. In the follow-up, I was told that specific actions—graffiti removed from new posts in the bike lane, tree stumps removed, trees replaced, paving patches restored—would be taken by a certain time. In each instance, even though I didn’t ask, specific dates were part of the promise.

Four weeks later and none of the deadlines had been met. Granted, most (but not all) were eventually met later in the year, but somehow their value was subtly diminished in my mind by the missing of the promised deadlines. Note that I had not asked for a specific deadline, but one had been promised, which changed the nature of the understanding. And therein lies the issue.

I don’t want to lay this all at the feet of government staffers. This is not a challenge restricted to one group or sector. No, in fact I’ve seen similar failures in for-profit businesses, nonprofit organizations, religious institutions, hospitals and medical facilities, and all volunteer groups, as well as in family settings. I’ve seen those types of failures in my own actions. The examples can range from major construction projects and missed report deadlines to simple tasks like taking out the garbage. (“I’ll get right on that, Dad!”)

As I was thinking about the “under promise/over deliver” truism,  I decided to undertake some research. Lo and behold, some real research, undertaken by a behavioral scientist and a business professor, found that going above and beyond a promise didn’t seem to be valued at all with business customers. The authors of the study speculate that “promises function something like a contract in our minds, nailing down expectations. Once we’ve received a promise, we strongly expect it to be met but do not in any way anticipate more than has been promised.”

Fair enough. It isn’t that I was expecting more trees to be planted than necessary, or an entire block repaved due to a poor, but relatively small, asphalt patching job by the utility company.

But I keep coming back to the promise and the delivery. I’d prefer you not tell me you are going to do something by this afternoon, or next week, or this month if there is a good chance it isn’t going to happen in that timeframe. If you don’t have great expectations you can meet a deadline, I’d rather hear that news so I can plan accordingly. In other words, I’d rather have realistic promises and deadlines.

I will suggest there are times when over-delivering is appreciated. I once was involved in a capital campaign that began with a $110 million goal. As we pushed closer to that number, we expanded it to $125 million. Each time we set and then expanded our goal, we were making a promise; one I took very seriously. I told our staff I wanted to blow by that last goal, to give our board, stakeholders, donors, and colleagues confidence that people wanted to see the organization succeed and were willing to invest in us. I still have a few hats around the house with the name of the campaign on the front and the words, “$100 million and still climbing” on the back. We ended the campaign having raised $135 million, or $10 million more than “promised.”

There are times when over-delivering is very much appreciated.

So, be thoughtful about your promises and base them on reality. Deliver on those promises, day in and day out. And in the times when over-delivery will make a difference, then go for it!

It sure the heck beats over promising and under delivering. I can “promise” you that such an approach will not be well received, by your client, your boss, your mom, or whoever is on the receiving end of your conversation.

Have a good week.

More to come…


Note: This is the third in a series of posts around interactions with government and property owners in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, where I live. The first involved an inability to connect dots to ensure that projects were coordinated. The second involved quality of work. This final segment of the story on reliability is still playing out.

Photo credit: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

This entry was posted in: Monday Musings, On Leadership


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

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