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If you promise to complete a project on time and you deliver it ahead of the deadline, don’t expect any special kudos from your boss.
If you pledge a certain level of service and deliver even more than you promise, you aren’t likely to receive any especially-rosy customer reviews.
That’s the conclusion drawn from a recent management study about the social consequences of surpassing promises. There is plenty of research showing that keeping promises builds trust and loyalty from customers, employees, and friends.
But behavioral scientist Ayelet Gneezy (University of California, San Diego) and psychology professor Nicholas Epley (University of Chicago) wanted to see if exceeding a promise engenders greater appreciation than simply fulfilling it.
They found that going above and beyond a promise doesn’t add much of a boost to your reputation. In experiment after experiment, involving both real and hypothetical scenarios involving promises that were either met, broken, or exceeded, they showed that people draw about the same amount of goodwill whether they transcend a promise or simply fulfill it.
Why are those extra efforts unacknowledged? The researchers point to earlier social research showing a hypersensitivity toward dishonesty and unfairness, but a lack of rewards for generosity. While their experiments focused on promises between individuals, they suspected that this same phenomenon occurred with more abstract relationships, including those in business settings.
“Businesses may work hard to exceed their promises to customers or employees, but our research suggests that this hard work may not produce the desired consequences beyond those obtained by simply keeping promises,” they write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
To test that theory, they asked college students to imagine using an online company to buy concert tickets for Row 10. The participants then were randomly instructed to consider receiving seating that was either worse than, better than, or exactly as promised. They then indicated their level of satisfaction with the purchase, as well their likelihood of both using the online ticketing company again and recommending the service to friends.
Unsurprisingly, the participants reacted negatively when they received tickets for seats that were worse than promised (no matter how bad the seats turned out to be).
But they were no more positive—in fact, were slightly more negative—when they received better tickets than promised compared to getting exactly what they were guaranteed.
The results of their research suggest that investing in customer freebies or a better-than-promised bonus to staff may yield disappointing returns, Gneezy and Epley say.
“When companies, friends, or coworkers put forth the effort to keep a promise, their effort is likely to be rewarded,” they write. “But when they expend extra effort in order to exceed those promises, their effort appears likely to be overlooked.”
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