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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Manager’s Biggest Mistake or How To Ruin Team’s Morale

Unhappy

I’ve heard that story multiple times. It had plenty of flavors but the baseline was always the same. A manager promised a team member something. It wasn’t really under manager’s control. After some time promise appeared to be empty as the manager, no matter how much they tried, couldn’t keep the word. It ended up with huge frustration of the team member.

Now it doesn’t really matter what kind of “something” we discuss. It may be as well raise as new project assignment or chance to attend the training or whatever. It doesn’t really matter if the thing was big or tiny. The only aspect which matters is the promise was empty.

I care about my credibility. It means you’ll often hear “no” from me only because I won’t promise you something I’m not sure I can carry through. The sole reason I’d like to say “yes” as badly as you’d like to hear it doesn’t change anything. If you caught me not keeping my promises a couple of times you wouldn’t trust me anymore. And what’s the use of a manger that isn’t trusted by their people?

Overpromising is a royal sin for every manager. Telling blatant lies is even worse, but most of the time managers overpromise with good intent. They say what they believe should be said to make their teams happy. This may even make people happy in the short perspective, but in the long run it will backfire big time.

If I had to point single root cause which resulted in the biggest overall frustration of employees it would be overpromising. Telling people things they want to hear but not being able to do what was promised. It ruins morale. It ruins trust.

And trust isn’t something you can rebuild in a day or two. Sometimes you can’t rebuild it at all. And if your team doesn’t trust you I don’t foresee there’s a stunning career in management waiting for you.

in: team management

6 comments… add one

  • Piotr Nabielec January 13, 2011, 1:41 pm

    Very true.
    I’ve seen it. I felt it. I did it…

  • Dave Moran January 15, 2011, 4:56 am

    Pawel,

    Great point! Making promises that you can’t deliver on does let people down. When faced with this situation — something that a team or team member needs that is out of my control — I don’t promise to deliver, but I do promise to take the problem on with no guarantee of delivery.

    As long as you agree with a team member’s need (no need to proceed if you don’t, just say no and state your reasons), then the key is to let people know that this is something out your control, but you are willing to tackle the problem on their behalf and that you’ll get back to them by a certain date with the results. People appreciate the honesty and effort, even if the result isn’t what they would like.

  • Pawel Brodzinski January 15, 2011, 10:24 am

    Dave,

    I see another pattern as well. Managers often overpromise when trying to sell their people optimistic version of reality. It’s not that they’re simply lying, they even believe in what they say. The problem is they should take into consideration odds that specific thing would happen. If the reality appears to be different team member feels tricked and manager’s good intention doesn’t change anything.

  • Dave Moran January 19, 2011, 6:12 am

    Pawel,

    Agreed! Optimism can surface anywhere, developers, managers, students, etc. I have post about this very subject… http://www.softwareresults.us/2010/05/optimism-isnt-just-for-developers.html

  • Radu Davidescu January 20, 2011, 8:45 am

    Hi Pawel,

    Yes, you are right. Empty promises destroy people’s morale. But sometimes, refusing taking promises also degradate morale, direct and immediately. Therefore the trick for good managers is to be Agile with promises too.
    I rather promise you to give 1$ every day for a year instead of 365$ after a year! I can also sell to you that is a better deal for you too as you’ll have some money earlier.
    After the first day you have an expectation of receiving 1$ so will be easier if I can’t pay you. After 3 consecutive days of non-payment I give you 1$ explaining you why I cannot give in the previous days. In fact I will explain to you every day why I cannot keep my promises for that day. By monitoring you I can keep your morale under control by deciding in which day I will pay you! Your payday will boost your morale more than 1$. In the end I’ll save a large amount from 365$
    Big and long term promises creates big expectations. Unfulfilled big promises destroy morale, so stay away from them. They also incorporates a large amount of risk for the person that make the promise.
    Cynic managers makes big and long term promises. The longer the period is, the smaller the changes to be true are. They just buy time for free. Some of them are very good to do that. In the end, after a year of empty promises they don’t care that they destroy morale. In the end, everyone is replaceable and team always needs some fresh blood. They don’t care, either leaving teams or changing team members.
    Sad but true, some of that managers are (still) considered one of the best managers from the industry. And sadly than this, from some shareholders perspective, they are!
    But, I guess, right now I’m entering into other debate!

    Cheers,

  • Pawel Brodzinski January 20, 2011, 3:21 pm

    Radu,

    I don’t buy $1 everyday model. If I promise you a dollar every single day and fail to fulfill my promise every three times out of four it will bring frustration even sooner than letting you wait until the end of the year.

    I choose other approach. I value my word highly. I hate to break it even when small issues are at stake. So I tell you you have your $1 on Friday and you have it. Then, with a good track record I can build over long-term goals and long-term promises but it works only as long as you trust me. Once I stop keeping my word we’re back on the beginning. Even worse, you already know I failed to keep my word in the past so it’ll be harder to rebuild trust.

    I prefer to be agile with promises, but on the other end. Sometimes, when situation requires, I make promises I haven’t planned to make. But once made they’re no different – I’ll keep them.

    There’s one more thing there – you have to teach people that you say “no” as well, even when they require you to make some promise. Sometimes your “no” shouldn’t be negotiable.

    No one said manager’s job is an easy one.

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