There’s a universal “rule” in the working world that nearly all successful professionals rely on: underpromise and overdeliver.
In theory, it makes sense — set an expectation that’s achievable, and then provide a little bit more, a little bit better, a little bit faster and so on. The person on the other end is pleasantly surprised, and you look like a hero.
I, myself, have touted the benefits of underpromising and overdelivering in the past, and let me assure you, there are a few. However, there is also a flip side to this equation, which is often overlooked. In truth, overdelivering at work can backfire if you aren’t careful. Here’s how:
1. Setting Unrealistic Expectations
Imagine this: Your manager assigns a project, and you commit to doing it in two weeks. In classic “overdelivery” form, you complete it in just one. It might feel lovely, and your manager might appreciate your prompt attention, but you’ve also just set a dangerous precedent. You’ve trained him that the expectations you establish are wildly inaccurate and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. If you’re not careful, he may start to expect that kind of overdelivery, regardless of the actual deadline upon which you’ve agreed. Instead of it being a nice surprise, he may take it for granted — until the day it doesn’t happen, and you’re left on the hot seat.
2. Wasting Time and Resources
In some cases, people overdeliver by providing a piece of work they deem “better” than the originally promised piece. For example, maybe you spend hours perfecting the design elements of a PowerPoint presentation, when all you were tasked with was verifying the accuracy of the data inside it. Later, you come to find that the presentation is being chucked altogether and the data transferred to a spreadsheet instead. All that work for naught!
You might think you’re going above and beyond (in a good way), but without clear direction, you can easily end up wasting precious time and resources on work that isn’t needed, wanted or useful.
3. Heading In the Wrong Direction
Even worse than wasting time and resources on unnecessary work is overdelivering something that actively undermines or derails other work. The truth is that most of us only know a small fraction of the big picture within our organizations and even within our teams. We don’t know what other people are working on, what other projects are in progress or coming up and what other items are dependent on the work we’re doing. When we “go rogue” — even with noble intentions — we are potentially impacting a whole series of other items in very negative ways, making other people’s lives harder or complicating things we know nothing of.
4. Stepping On Toes
People can get pretty territorial about their work. Your extra bit of effort could steer you right over the boundaries of someone else’s job. It might feel like you’re showing initiative and drive, but really, you’re out of bounds. This can come off as glory-seeking and noncooperative — like you’re stealing all the work for yourself or think you know better than the person actually responsible for the work you’re doing.
Now, please don’t get me wrong: Going the extra mile at work is great and often pays off. No one wants to be mediocre or do the bare minimum, and I’m not suggesting you should. But be careful about how and when you overdeliver. It’s not a practice that works for everyone in every circumstance. There are limits to what you can and should do in the workplace.
Promise and deliver: That’s really the key. Once you start playing games with that simple equation, all bets are off. Sure, you may come out the hero. Or you may become the unwitting victim of your own ambition. Consider yourself warned.
Chrissy Scivicque, the founder of EatYourCareer.com, believes work can be a delicious, nourishing life experience. As a corporate trainer and public speaker, she helps professionals of all levels unlock their true potential and discover long-lasting career fulfillment.
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