“Oh, the humanity!” That line radio reporter Herb Morrison famously cried out when covering the Hindenburg disaster, as the zeppelin caught fire and crashed in 1937, is familiar in business today. People occasionally take a personal nosedive in missing a deadline, and the fallout can be painful. Mistakes inevitably happen; we are human, after all.
There is some parallel irony here, though: The Hindenburg was almost half a day late in landing due to last-minute, unforeseen circumstances—storms. It took just 34 seconds for the airship to be destroyed. That one incident single-handedly shattered public confidence in the massive, passenger-carrying aircraft and marked the end of the airship era.
Could your reputation sink as quickly? Do last-minute interruptions take you off course and delay the completion of a project? Is your job at risk? Bear in mind, although meeting objectives is an important part of any responsible position, whether a miss causes your career to crash and burn depends on the circumstances surrounding the gaffe and how you respond.
Despite the time-management tools available today—including at least 3,700 apps and another 5,000 productivity-related books released in the U.S. between 2011 and 2013—there is the reality of company downsizing and more responsibility being divided among fewer employees.
“Missing a deadline is just a mortal sin in some situations and some professions, but in today’s world with so many competing deadlines and priorities, we do see it happen,” says Christel Slaughter, partner with SSA Consultants, a Baton Rouge-based organizational development and management consulting firm.
So how do you handle it—ethically and gracefully? Local experts Slaughter, Mimi Singer of the LSU Office of Human Resource Management and Stephanie Henagan of the Rucks Department of Management offer the following suggestions to salvage a working relationship and avoid a repeat of the misstep.
Henagan says it’s about trust. “Providing an explanation for the missed deadline helps show the other person that you are human and gives them something to consider when determining whether to trust you again. Your reason could be a one-time event that is unlikely to reoccur.”
Slaughter adds, “People are sensitive to personal emergencies that are critical enough where they make sense. Be mature. Don’t try to place the blame elsewhere; accept the responsibility and if the person is angry, acknowledge that.”
“While you can’t take back what already happened, making amends with a sincere apology goes a long way and is appreciated by most,” Singer says. “If genuine, an apology shows that you recognize that missing the deadline has impacted the other person in a negative way and that you know it was wrong.
This is different from an excuse, which is used to defend the wrong behavior in an attempt to make it seem OK,” adds Henagan. Another thing Slaughter suggests is making an appointment—not just dropping in—and offering a small gesture to help make amends. Bring cookies or a book with a nice note. Take the person to lunch or bring him or her a coffee to talk it through. Be proactive.
3. Offer to pay a penance.
“This also shows you recognize you have harmed the other person in some way and believe you owe them something to make up for it,” says Henagan. “The most effective way to do this is to ask him or her to define the price: What can I do to make this up to you?'” she adds. Slaughter explains this in terms of service recovery. “People don’t realize how important it is.
“The research shows that if you try to help a customer who is let down in some form or fashion, and you do it quickly and you do it courteously, they will come back and use your services again or buy your product again,” she says. Perhaps offer a discount next time, adjust the bill, or even eat the cost to make things right.
4. Make a change.
First, be sure that you understand the full scope of the project. “I recall agreeing to a really interesting project for my boss and bounced off to my office to get started. Once I began the project, I realized that there were more layers to the onion than I had originally thought, making it difficult to meet the deadline. Asking more questions in the initial meeting would have benefited me,” admits Singer.
Next, be sure to set reasonable deadlines. “A lot of my clients are overly ambitious or optimistic about it,” adds Slaughter. “I find that people who manage their professional reputation by being more realistic about when they can turn something around get a lot of respect. And build in cushions for those unexpected interruptions—they will come.”
5. Wow them.
“For the next project, really put your all behind it,” Singer says. “Start early and keep refining it until it is a top-rate, quality product. Consider turning it in a day or two early to demonstrate the willingness to not only meet expectations but exceed them.”
6. Communicate—early and often.
“As with most things, communication is key,” Singer notes. Inform your boss that you are on top of the project and are looking forward to his or her feedback when it is submitted [on time].” Also, continually provide updates on your progress. “If at all possible, when somebody realizes they are not going to hit a deadline, they need to let whoever their customer is—internal or external—know that there is going to be a delay,” says Slaughter.
But just not saying anything at all is the worst thing that can be done. “When there’s no communication whatsoever, that’s where you really have a chance of getting somebody upset. And then it’s harder to make any kind of reparation after that,” she says. Her advice post-blunder: “Come and tell me why that wasn’t possible or what you’ve learned from the experience.”
These steps are opportunities to rebuild a relationship that you might have damaged. Says Henagan: “Once repaired, the trust can actually become more durable and stable than it was before the transgression, because you will have made yourself vulnerable to the other person in a way that strengthens your interpersonal bond.”