It’s Better to Just Keep Your Promises Than to Try to Really Wow People

two toy figurines of Joker from Batman. The one on the right is small and cute and childlike. The one on the right is a wiry adult looking version of the Joker.
Image by JD Hancock / CC BY

There’s an old school of thought in business called “underpromise, overdeliver.”

Essentially, this advice says that what you should do is set customer expectations low so that you can not only meet them but exceed them. That it’s important not only to satisfy your customers but to thrill them.

It might take extra effort than simply setting up reasonable expectations and meeting them (the double think and communication required to have one internal story for employees and another external one for customers), but this school of advice insists that it’ll be well worth it. Since your customers will be absolutely delighted by it.

“Underpromise, overdeliver” seems to make intuitive sense on the surface, when you look at it in mathematical terms. The trouble, however, is that human emotions don’t really obey the rules of simple arithmetic.

And in fact, research has challenged this.

It’s Better to Just Keep Your Promises Than Try to Really Wow People

Instead, research has found that it’s better just to keep your promises than to try to really wow people. In a series of experiments, researchers consistently found that while people viewed keeping a promise a much more desirable state of affairs to breaking one, there really was not additional discernible emotional benefit in situations where someone had not only kept a promise but exceeded expectations.

When it comes to others feeling gratitude and appreciation for one’s efforts, it seems that it’s more important that the person you’re dealing with feels like you are trustworthy and reliable than you do anything spectacular that really blows them away.

True, when you wow people, you are also keeping your basic promise. So it’s not a bad thing. But if you have to risk not fulfilling your basic promise in order to reach for wowing someone, that’s probably not a good risk to take.

It’s More Important to Show Up Than to Be Amazing

I’m personally going to try to remember this the next time I’ve made plans with someone and am tempted to cancel because I’m worried that I won’t be the best company because I’m not up to being my most entertaining, best version of myself. I’ll just remind myself that not flaking out is what’s really important, honoring my promise to spend time with them. That I don’t have to be endlessly captivating and knock their socks up.

That it’s more important that I just show up like I said I would.

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See also:

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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