Professional Relationship: How to Respond to Broken Promises

professional relationship

In professional a relationship, broken agreements, lack of follow through, and unclear expectations significantly increase the risk that projects get delayed, customers miss a shipment on time, or quality standards are not met. Additionally, it creates frustration, dissatisfaction or even resentment for the people involved.

How do you respond in a situation where a co-worker,
manager or peer who doesn’t live up to their word?

When the Professional Relationship May Go Sour

Just recently, I had an experience of this nature with a business partner.

I have known Lewis for years. He is one of the top recruiters in the executive arena, and I consider him an expert in recruiting top talent for Fortune 1000. He is ambitious, intelligent, and an exceptional conversationalist. Lewis’ biggest professional strength is his superb questioning and listening skills.

Recently, we met over lunch and bounced off business ideas to partner together on a client project on leadership assessment and training. This is a topic that we both feel passionate about. I left that lunch with excitement, but not a specific next step.
I followed up with a phone call, and emails, all of which were left with “I’ll get back to you”.

After several unfruitful attempts to get a response, I got frustrated and started to question how we can develop a successful professional partnership if we are not responsive (and responsible) to each other. I wanted to call him again and tell him straight in his face “Hey buddy, if we do business together, I’d expect you to follow through on what you say”.
Instead, I took a step back and wondered how to get that message across without appearing critical and even offensive. I crafted a message, which I edited several times to make it sound appropriate. Here is what I sent to him:

Dear Lewis,
I highly respect your professional expertise and I am interested to further explore how to partner together and develop a successful project for our client.
At the same time, I am concerned about your responsiveness. When I called you the last two times, you said “I’ll get back to you later today.” I am still waiting for your call. I understand that you are very busy and have many things going on.
Please let me know your level of interest and commitment. Again, I appreciate our professional relationship.
Best regards,

It is a skill to call someone out without coming across critical or offensive. The key is to find the appropriate tone.

To my surprise, I received an email after only 15 minutes. Obviously, I got his attention.

Here is his reply email:

Simon, my apologies for my delayed response.
We just finished an end of period and so schedules/tasks gave way to higher priorities from the internal clients. I do welcome the opportunity to connect again and will suggest some times for a follow up call next week. I agree that we may have some powerful business ideas. Thank you for taking the time to reach out to me here.

A week later, we met again for lunch and briefly addressed the topic of responsiveness and follow through in a professional relationship. He admitted that when he saw my email, he had to smile and said: “It has been years since anybody had called me out!” I was pleased to hear that and replied, “I accept your apology”, and off we went to further discuss our business endeavor.

Calling out Your Business Colleagues is a Skill that Can Be Learned

Please consider the following principles:

  1. Deal with your emotions first. Never respond when you are frustrated, annoyed, or angry with the other person’s behavior.
  2. Be specific: Call someone out by stating what happened, not your interpretation of what happened.
  3. Ensure that the tone of the message reflects an attitude of support, candor and honesty, instead of criticism or irritation. People appreciate supportive feedback. They resent critical feedback.

When a professional relationship is difficult dues to unresponsive partners or unmet expectations, communication is crucial. Rather than setting out to express frustration or anger that would only cause problems, keep your emotions in check and find ways to positively engage team members so they keep seeing the big picture: a successful outcome.

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