The overpromising senior leader and the mission impossible project – 5 steps to ensure real results for every project

One of the topics that have been overlooked is the one for the leader who gives promises, just to break them down after a while. There is a lot written on the topic of the leadership,  but very few of what is written is about this behavior and how to deal with it.

Imagine(or not) that you work in a company where everyone expects you to do so many things. You have to work in your own area of expertise and at the same time, you will have to cover other areas, because the senior leader has identified that you can do that.  Compared to others in the company you don’t show a negative attitude when you are called out for a new and exciting project. You get approval for your project plan,  you get the budget you want and you start.  In the beginning, there is a lot of enthusiasm. You see fast results in the first couple of stages,  you reach the first milestone, then the second one is just in front of you. And one day you see the leader stepping back. He/she still demands the project or the activity to be finished “as per schedule negotiated and confirmed”, but now you get less support,  he looks less excited about the project and you feel that you are left behind.  Demands are there, but support and trust are gone. And that leads to delays in the schedule,  freezes of some of the stages for different periods,  but still, the end results are a point you often discuss with the senior leader, just to realize that there will be another delay or something else that stops the work.  There is nothing or less left from the enthusiasm and the speed of communication between you and the senior leader and it had turned into long discussions, perfectionism thinking focusing on small or insignificant elements, delayed answers or silence for a long period of times on topics that are important to finish the job, etc.

In situations like the one described you may feel anxious,  angry,  demotivated. You may lack willingness or energy,  may procrastinate the activities you have planned, waiting for the senior leader to make the next step. You may also move from the project or activity and scratch it out from your schedule as a wasting time activity.

But in most cases, this won’t lead you to any positive results. Instead, it can create distrust toward you from the senior leader an even cause you to enter into an unhealthy conflict with him or her.  And the higher the senior leaders are positioned in the hierarchy, the harder it is to make him/her keep their promises.  This often leads to demotivation, lack of energy and unwillingness to start anything new in the followers or mid-level employees in the company.  But these leaders are not so hard to deal with.  They just lack confidence and to look positive and supporting they often promise much than they can deal with in the reality,  just to realize that there are not enough resources for certain activities projects, etc. and they will have to cancel or freeze them. Because these leaders don’t know how to do it they start to procrastinate, hoping that the thing will be forgotten,  or people will give up on time. They don’t realize how their behavior impacts people around them and often don’t react until a person gives totally up and doesn’t care anymore about what will and can happen.

But to be honest this approach leads to negative consequences not only for the person, responsible for the action or the project but also for the whole organization. If you have to deal with an overpromising senior leader you need a strategy. Here is what has worked for me and people I have worked with  to help  them overcome the overpromising leaders in their organizations and achieve great results:

Give feedback
The overpromising leader often offers support and help on crucial for each project task. He or she declares support in a wider range of groups because he or she wants to win the trust and build a positive attitude toward his/her behavior.  Use the information shared in the meetings to remind this senior leader about his or her words in public.  But don’t forget to do that in private.  No matter what has happened to try to not point the senior leader weakness in public.  This can only lead to  “ego’s war” and often ends with disappointment and separation.

Report the procrastination without judgment
We all have to report our work results to someone. The senior leader you may serve to is often part of this group of people the person affected by the overpromising style reports to. Use the official forms to point the delay or procrastination of a task or a project in a positive way. And do not forget to exclude any emotion from the report concerning a person you depend on who didn’t do its job.

For example, if you write a weekly report on progress and you have something delayed from a senior leader, instead of putting a phrase like: “Project is delayed because the XXX does not give any answer to the situations. Can’t give any  new deadline for end results.”, you  can use a phrase like:

“Project  X – no new status. Need additional discussion with the senior leader Y.  Possible new end date XXXX”

Now, look at the two sentences. The first one is blaming directly as the second one is more polite and does not accuse directly. But still, the second sentence can be used as a reminder that you need what was promised or the job won’t be finished.

Try  re-focusing the project
This one is tuff. It needs your courage.  Most people who don’t succeed with their projects or tasks are in this position because they never had the courage to sit directly with the person who  “forgets” about promises and discuss the situation by trying to find a working solution. They sit and wait  miracle to happen.  Instead,  to be one of them,  you better focus on being pro-active.  Take control of the situation.  Prepare a short analysis of what can and can’t happen if the senior leader you have approached and has promised something that was not done still demands the final results.  Organize a meeting and show the results of your analysis.  Focus on what and how can happen by using the time framework of the current project with included changes, caused by the delays. Then move the discussion to what is really needed to see the project as successful and what is causing the delay and to what that delay can and is leading at the current moment.  Re-assess the project and re-write the milestones in line with the situation you have discovered during the discussion.

Get approval and support in official form
I often do that when I see that something is delayed. Instead of starting with  “If I don’t get that,  I won’t be able to deliver the result”(an often-made mistake) I make something else.  I sit down with the senior leader and write the activities,  part of the project and ask for an official commitment. This you can do in written form like a protocol from a meeting,  memo, etc. After getting this done,  you now have another agreement for the projects.  Include in this form you plan to use,  the tasks, milestones, and schedule,  but don’t forget to write each participant or supporter roles and the consequences if someone overlooks it’s role responsibilities.  Having that written save you from failure and is an easy way to boost results, by having everyone involved commitment as an agreement.

Execute with  care and flexibility in mind
I’ve had a student in one of the classes I led who was eager to succeed with the projects responsible for,  but gave up every time when something had to change in the project schedule.  Don’t try to be the one who is following a straight line with no distractions.  Try to be flexible.  Maybe some of the activities have to change their first form into another that is more suitable for a changing environment,  or you will have to delay some activities because of unplanned things happened. Learn to be flexible and ready to change the project outcomes,  but before changing the main milestones initiate a meeting with the senior leader acting as a sponsor and support for your project and explain what the changes will mean for the final result of the project.

Working with a person who can’t evaluate resources trough final  results is always challenging.  No matter the position this person holds,  the overpromising approach can often lead to disappointment and charge without any real need for that.  The best approach to overcome that is to try to be honest,  work out the situations by using strong data and being flexible, but still realistic on the final results.  And last but not least,  working with a challenging person or senior leader can be much easier if you take all the changes with positive, instead of negative approach.


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