The Right Way to Break a Promise

Last Updated May 4, 2011 10:51 AM EDT

No one likes to break a promise, but sometimes it's inevitable. You suddenly have a work emergency that takes priority over another project, or you encounter some unexpected roadblocks to completing an assignment. Or perhaps there is a family matter that takes precedence.

The question is: how do you do break the news preserving your reputation and the relationships?

I thought of this recently because a friend told me how she had to tell a co-worker she couldn't help out with a project, as promised. She was running behind on her own deadlines and realized she just couldn't make good on the favor without sacrificing her own work. The colleague--let's call her, Melissa- was steamed and wouldn't return phone calls. My thoughts? It didn't have to work out this way.

Here's what you should do if you need to break a promise:

1. Give advance notice. My friend broke the news at the last minute because she dreaded making the call. That's understandable, but a realistic look at her obligations and commitments might have helped prevent her from getting into this time bind. And certainly, the minute it becomes obvious that you might have difficulty meeting your commitment you should give that person a heads up. No one likes receiving that news, but being told in advance means the other party can make contingency plans. It's another matter entirely when you back out last minute.

2. Apologize personally. My friend was so nervous to tell Melissa, she had her boss make the call. She figured having an authoritative voice convey the information would make it more palatable, but the reverse was true. Melissa felt slighted, as though my friend couldn't be bothered to deal with her personally.

3. Try to come up with other options. After Melissa began dodging my friend's calls, she went into overdrive, coming up with possible solutions--maybe she could call this person to fill in, maybe she could work on part of the project now. She may have had some good ideas, but offering them after Melissa got annoyed didn't win her any points. It's a lot less harsh to offer alternatives, rather than just shutting someone down with a cold, hard "no." My friend could have said, "I'm really sorry - when I agreed to help with your project, I just didn't realize I'd be this far behind on my own. I know it's an inconvenience, but I wonder if I could do part of the project now, and deliver the rest the week after next."

4. Send a gift. A brand new car? Of course not. But a token, with a sincere, handwritten note of apology, is a gesture that shows you understand you blew it, take the person and your word seriously, and will work hard to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Breaking promises is one of the easiest ways to destroy the trust and credibility you've worked so hard to build, but sometimes life intervenes. If you show you regret the inconveniences and hassles you're causing, that will go a long way to minimizing the damage.

What are the strategies you've used when you have to break a promise? What worked and what hasn't?

Dorie Clark is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.
image courtesy of flickr user, baileyraeweaver