A colleague at a funding agency had asked for my help with evaluating proposals. There'd be a remote meeting I'd need to sit in on. The day and time sounded fine, so I added it to my calendar. But as the date inched closer, I started to sweat. I didn't have the time I thought I did—and I'd need to back out. Which, ultimately, I did. I felt pretty bad about it, though, and I don’t think my colleague was too pleased, either.
This type of situation is so common that I realize it doesn't make for an especially interesting anecdote. But the messy, uncomfortable resolutions these scenarios often lead to don't need to be so messy or uncomfortable. Here's how to back out of a commitment in a way that minimizes the damage on all sides.
It helps to understand first why so many of us overcommit to things time and time again. There's quite a bit of research suggesting that we think about future events more abstractly than we do about present ones. That makes intuitive sense. But it isn't just expanses of time—temporal distance—to which our minds give that treatment. We tend to think abstractly about things we perceive to be distant from us by virtually every measure—socially, geographically, you name it.
So when you make a commitment for the future, you're not wired to think through all the details that may get in the way of your ability to fulfill it, or at least not as well as you're able to for nearer-term obligations. As the date approaches, the abstraction dissipates. Details, hindrances, and expectations crowd in, making you a better forecaster. You think about the situation more specifically, and all the other bits of knowledge and information you weren't able to consider initially begin to assert themselves.
Backing out of commitments sends a message about how much and whether others can trust us. Think about why someone's asked your participation in the first place. Much of the time, we're invited to join in by people who have significant responsibilities of their own—which they often need to delegate to others. And they prefer to delegate that work to people they're confident can ease their burden by doing what they commit to do and doing it well.
When you back out of a commitment, you undermine the confidence of the person who's come to you for help—sending the implicit message that, as the saying goes, if you want anything done right, you've just got to do it yourself.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing, and for whom? It all depends. If the people who delegate some of their tasks to you are those whose attention you'd like to attract, you should obviously minimize the number of times you send them the message not to trust you. Of course, if people are trying to delegate work to you that they really should do themselves, you shouldn’t agree to do it in the first place. But in that case, there's certainly less risk (to you, anyway) in backing out.
So if you find yourself overbooked and need to pull out of a commitment, your first step is to do what many of us do intuitively already: Ask yourself how valuable the person is to you that you're letting down. Much of the time, though, this first step is also the last one we take, which can lead to a self-interested, cynical-minded pattern of leaving "unimportant" people hanging at the expense of others with higher cache. They'll probably catch on, and it won't do you any favors.
The next step is to consider timing. It's always best to recognize as quickly as possible when it's looking like you can't make it, then give notice as quickly as possible—especially since we're cognitively shortchanged on this score to begin with. It also moves the consideration from yourself ("How much can this person help or hurt my career?") toward others ("How badly will me backing out hurt them?"). The more time you can offer somebody to find a replacement, the more likely their work won't suffer.
And if you know someone who's qualified and available to fill in, offer to run the opportunity past them. You want to make life as easy as possible for the person who made the initial request—no matter who they are.
You should also own what happened and apologize. There's always a temptation to blame circumstances beyond your control—an emergency came up, or something unexpected happened—but they risk sounding like excuses even if they're true. Even if the truth is simply that you just overcommitted, say that. Then say you’re sorry. A white lie is fine in social situations where you're trying to avoid embarrassing someone else. But they're a bad idea when you're trying to shirk responsibility and avoid embarrassing yourself. If it's your own fault, own up to it.
There are two reasons for this. First, whoever gave you this work to do in the first place did so because they respect you. You want to keep their respect. And they'll likely respect your willingness to take responsibility for your mistakes. By backing out of a commitment, you're already doing something that undermines people’s trust in you, and this is the best way to regain some of it.
Second (and perhaps more important), taking responsibility for a mistake puts you in a good frame of mind to learn from it. When you explain away your reasons for reneging on a commitment, it's easy to blame everything but your own actions. When you take responsibility, though, it forces you to think back to the way you made the decision in the first place. That helps you consider whether there were signs you could've heeded from the get-go—signs you'll be able to spot more readily next time.
Finally, while it's never a great thing to back out of a commitment, it's unlikely to do irreparable damage—to either your reputation or your relationship with the person you backed out on—unless it becomes a habit.
Most people in positions of authority have also had their share of situations where they couldn’t follow through on a commitment. It happens. People are often pretty understanding and prove willing to look beyond an isolated incident. (It's up to you, though, to keep it an isolated incident.)
After all, most people are hardest on themselves. You'll likely (though not always) feel worse about your failure than the person who made the original request will feel let down. Don't ignore that guilt—it's valuable. That's where your motivation will come from to make sure you're better able to honor your commitments in the future.