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Leadership: Keeping a Promise Is Worth More Than Exceeding It

July 17, 2014
New research finds that there is no value in going above and beyond what you promise to do, but the cost of breaking your word is high.

Think twice before breaking that promise – or exceeding it. New research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business finds that exceeding a promise isn't viewed any more highly than keeping a promise.

“I think there are two implications to keep in mind, both in our professional and personal lives,” says Nicholas Epley, John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science at Chicago Booth. “First, maintaining good relations with other people does not require a superhuman effort. Do what you promise you’ll do, and people are grateful.”

The second implication, says Epley, is that you don’t need to be Superman and go above and beyond your promises in order to be appreciated by other people but if you do put in the superhuman effort to do more than you promised, “Don’t get angry when other people don’t seem to appreciate the extra work you put in. They’re not inherently ungrateful or unappreciative – they’re only human.”

Epley and Ayelet Gneezy, of the Rady School of Management at the University of California at San Diego, published their findings in their paper “Worth Keeping But Not Exceeding: Asymmetric Consequences of Breaking Versus Exceeding Promises” (Social Psychological and Personality Science, May 2014). The researchers conducted three sets of experiments, and found asymmetry between promises broken versus kept, and promises kept versus promises exceeded.

Thus, they say, there is little or no benefit to putting forth a greater effort to exceed a promise when keeping a promise is so highly valued. This also likely extends beyond interpersonal relationships, the researchers write, to relationships between businesses and customers, and employers and employees.

To show this, Epley and Gneezy asked undergraduates to imagine purchasing tickets to a concert from an online company for Row 10, and then they were given worse tickets than promised, better tickets or the exact tickets promised. They found that respondents had a more negative association to the better tickets than the promised tickets (though the worse tickets were viewed more negatively than the other scenarios).

“Businesses may work hard to exceed their promises to customers or employees (Conway and Briner, 2002), but our research suggests that this hard work may not produce the desired consequences beyond those obtained by simply keeping promises,” wrote Epley and Gneezy in their conclusion. “Promises can be hard to keep, and promise makers should spend their effort keeping them wisely.”

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