In the last 10 days, two different people have each “bumped” me twice: one was a TV producer who wanted to interview me and the other was a top exec who wanted me to interview him! There were good reasons for both sets of postponements — and as inconvenient as it is to have to reschedule, usually I’m actually grateful for the found time.
But I wouldn’t feel as sanguine and easygoing about these scheduling bumps if they came from people that I needed to collaborate with regularly in order to generate results that I was required to deliver.
We Expect Our Colleagues to Show Up for Us
Most people get seriously upset, both professionally and personally, when someone cancels on them repeatedly. They assume bad intent or weakness: maybe the other person doesn’t care; is out to get them; or is just plain irresponsible, lazy, or careless. And most people respond with some combination of hurt (Why are you creating situations that are bad for me? Why don’t you care about me) and anger (How dare you treat me this way!).
But particularly these days, almost everyone has too much going on, and sometimes the people we count on most or hope will help us are also responsible for countless other people and situations that we don’t even know about.
And the great likelihood is that they’re not thinking a tremendous amount about you. They’re thinking about how to handle their multiple priorities, mess up as little as possible, and have as calm a day as they can.
Yes, it stinks when someone defaults, cancels, or worst of all, ghosts you. But there are practical things you can do when it happens.
Turn Bumps and Ghosting into Relationship Opportunities
Do a pause-and-self-check. The great likelihood is that your colleague’s behavior has very little to do with you and your concerns. Whether they’re too busy, prone to tardiness or disorganization, or treat your work as a lower priority — it’s not about you! It’s about what they feel they need to do to get by. They are trying to take care of themselves and doing the best they can. Assume good intent and forgive others who may be as or more overwhelmed than you are.
Ask them what’s going on and what would work better. If they express sorrow or distress, or they apologize, take them at face value at least a couple of times. If they tell you that a different time, structure, or process would work better for them, try to accommodate them if it is not damaging to you.
Explain the impact. Instead of simply swallowing your aggravation or overreacting with personal challenges or ire, speak plainly about what actually goes wrong when they don’t show up as planned. If possible, put it in the context of shared goals and values, not just things that are important to you.
But in some cases, they actually aren’t getting a benefit from participating — so the loss is only yours. Then you have to hope you can show how much their contribution means to you, and the ways you’re trying to accommodate them with timing or process: “I know it’s not convenient for you to come help my team with this, but we would appreciate it so much — your input makes a real difference in our success.”
Avoid policing their behavior. Get yourself out of anything that sounds like enforcement. It certainly won’t help to tell them you’re aware they’ve made time for other meetings that you consider less important. Instead, gently nudge them into recognition of how or how often they’ve let you down: “You probably don’t realize how many times you haven’t been able to make our Monday task force check-ins. Will you please start to keep track of how often you make it and how often something gets in your way? Would you think it was okay if someone missed your meetings this frequently?” Anything you can do to help them manage their priorities in your favor is better than having an ongoing acrimonious relationship.
Ask for their commitment. Make a new agreement based on a reevaluation of how to structure their participation. “Now that we’ve changed the schedule, will you be able to join us promptly next Tuesday? We’re really counting on you.”
Reframe Your Perspective for Your Own Peace of Mind
It’s unfortunately normal and common for colleagues at all levels to be overextended, just as we are. That means that when anything disrupts the plan, it’s likely to have outsize effects. But you won’t necessarily recognize how overtaxed your teammates are; you may only notice that they’re not showing up for you.
If you reframe your perspective, you’ll see that making it easier and more comfortable for your colleagues to give you what you want will also reduce the pressure on your calendar and your life.