Trust and narrowing the say-do gap



How often do you say you’re going to do something and then put it on the backburner? Here, Chloe Michel, marketing specialist, and part of the Redefining Communications collective discusses the say-do gap and what we can do to narrow it.

With so many deadlines, conflicting demands and constantly changing circumstances, the say-do gap – the difference between what you say you’ll get done and what you actually do – has widened for many in the past year. Most of us will be able to think of at least one time we were on the receiving end of this, and maybe even a time when you promised you’d complete something and didn’t. How many times has someone said to you at an update meeting, “I’ll get that to you by Friday”, only for it still to be on the agenda the following month?

Whether you’re the one setting the deadline or meeting it, many of us are subject to conflicting priorities, placed on us by different stakeholders – both junior and senior to us. Collaboration tools like Asana, ClickUp, Basecamp or Trello all help us decide and set deadlines for ourselves and others. Perhaps because of this, people have developed deadline fatigue and don’t always pay much attention to them. It may be that we don’t fully understand the knock-on effect when we don’t meet those deadlines, or the impact of pressure on those doing the work.

The word deadline has dark origins. The first use was in the early 1860s to describe “a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot.” Although most of us aren’t in a daily life and death situation, if we fail to follow through on our words, there are still implications. As we collaborate with internal and external teams, if we don’t meet deadlines at best it’s irritating and frustrating, at worst it erodes trust and loyalty among the people you’re working with, affects morale and slows progress. Narrowing the say-do gap and meeting the deadlines we set for ourselves and others is crucial for productivity and maintaining a focus on achieving our overall goals. As individuals, this is also good for our reputation inside and outside an organisation and increases our confidence.

Confident expectations

What this really all boils down to is trust and respect. When things are difficult, trust matters. If you’re working in a team where you all trust and respect each other, it enables you to move forward positively in hard times. Actions speak louder than words.

Elvin Turner is an innovation expert and author of Be Less Zombie: How great companies create dynamic innovation, fearless leadership and passionate people. I caught up with Elvin to get his core advice on this. He told me: “Building trust means creating confident expectations about how you’ll behave. Trust is the level of confidence that I have in what you’ll do and how you’ll do it. That means it’s both a matter of capability and character. Organisations that can trust their people to make the right decisions and get things done, move faster and innovate better. Trust is a performance game-changer, but often we avoid the conversations that build it because they feel too personal or confrontational.”

Narrowing the say-do gap

Reducing the amount of time we say we’re going to do something but fail to and instead setting realistic deadlines can be inspiring, exciting and create a real purpose. It’s something that can be tackled by everyone – whether you’re on the receiving end of the say-do gap, or something you recognise in yourself. We can start to address this issue for ourselves and the people we work with by improving our communication, planning and changing the language we use.

Here are some tips:

  1. Stop saying “ASAP” – this makes a big difference in setting boundaries and managing expectations on both sides. As Redefining Communications founder, Jenni, says, “ASAP is not a deadline. What’s ASAP to you, is not ASAP to me.” Instead, look at creating workflows and tap into resources that enable us to continue to be productive.
  2. Get SMART – setting SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based) has been around since the 1980s, but it’s still a useful tool today. Don’t overlook ‘A’ or ‘T’– whether your goal is achievable within the timeframe. Add in milestones along the way and be flexible on both sides. It’s better to overestimate the time it will take and have a cushion to deliver early. Working extra hours to meet an unreasonable deadline can lead to burnout, so we need to ruthlessly manage time and ensure we have the tools to complete the task.
  3. Switch the word “trust” for “confidence” – to address a lack of decision-making, which can slow progress and lead to a say-do gap, Turner recommends managers reframe what they say to their team: “I want you to have more responsibility for decision-making so I’d like us to create a plan that would build mutual confidence for achieving that. Let’s talk about what you would need to feel safe in making more decisions and I can share some thoughts from my side too.”
  4. Be more specific – sometimes the issue might be that the goals are clear, but people aren’t sure about the steps needed to achieve them, so they fall down the say-do gap. People might have a real enthusiasm for more collaborative working, improving communication, or focusing on well-being, but they aren’t specific enough about how they’ll achieve these things. This is something Jenni talked about in her blog, Why being more specific in 2021 is essential for organisations.
  5. Don’t overpromise and build cooperation – avoid saying what you think people want to hear; it can quickly backfire. Where possible, push back if a deadline is unrealistic and set your own timeframe. Everything can’t be a priority. It’s important to communicate where a certain task sits for you and that you have multiple stakeholders and deadlines. Are the deadlines reasonable, strategic and moving you closer to your goals? If possible, divide deadlines into smaller milestones and keep the team updated at those points – clarity, managing expectations and two-way communication is key. This also helps to better facilitate cooperation within your organisation; something that Yves Morieux summarises in his TED talk, with his six rules for “smart simplicity.”
  6. Perfection is a myth – sometimes what holds us back is the feeling that a piece of work, idea or project must be perfect before we deliver it. But perfectionism can be a roadblock to progress, it wastes time and means we miss deadlines.
  7. Try monotasking (paying attention to a single task) – you can only really do one thing well at a time, so it’s a good idea to block out a clear time to focus on a task and turn off your notifications as explained by Paolo Cardini in his short TED talk on monotasking.
  8. Be flexible and compassionate – sometimes external factors are beyond our control, as we’ve all seen in the past year with the tumultuous impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, so we need to allow for that. If you think this is an issue for you or the people you work with, over the course of a month, monitor how often tasks are delivered on time. This isn’t about pointing fingers, but it can be a temperature check on whether you are overpromising as a team and allow you to adapt and become more realistic in the expectations that are set.

Blog by Chloe Michel. Chloe is a freelance marketing consultant and copywriter and part of the Redefining Communications collective. She works with leaders and business owners to help them articulate their vision and tell a compelling story.

If you’d like to know more, listen to the Redefining Communications with Jenni Field podcast episodes about fear and trust and culture and leadership.

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Subscribe to join our community and we’ll be in touch with helpful advice and updates about how we can take your organisation from chaos to calm. Our community gets invited to a quarterly 90-minute Ask Me Anything online session with Jenni Field, as well as early access to events, discounts and research.

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