5 Psychology-Backed Ways to Get Your Team to Respect Deadlines

You and your team agree on a deadline for a specific project. You assume it’s more than enough time to get those deliverables wrapped up. But sure enough, things quickly start to unravel.

One team member is late in collecting the necessary statistics, which then delays the co-worker who was supposed to create the graphs, which in turn pushes back the employee who was going to proofread the report — everything just snowballs from there. Suddenly, your project is more than a week behind.

Every leader knows that deadlines can be a constant headache. Even with the best of intentions and the most thorough planning, things go off track. We’re all natural procrastinators, and deadlines are almost never given the serious consideration they deserve.

So what can you do? As a leader, how can you emphasize the importance of those due dates and keep your whole team on schedule?

Why Are Deadlines Such a Struggle?

First things first: it’s important to understand why we all have the tendency to just brush off deadlines. While the word itself was coined in 19th century Civil War prisons as a physical line beyond which prisoners would be shot, we all tend to view deadlines more flippantly — more as suggestions than firm instructions.

One reason we all tend to tapdance close to deadlines is because procrastination motivates us. It’s something called the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Put simply, as our arousal (in this case, stress) increases, so does our performance of the task.

This is the Yerkes-Dodson Law

We’ve all impressed ourselves with how quickly we were able to crank through something the night before a due date. And that’s because the stress of that fast-approaching deadline gave us a necessary kick in the pants.

Psychologists coined something similar called the “Goal Looms Larger Effect.” The closer the deadline approaches, the more important that task becomes — and the more it looms in your mind, so to speak.

But, there’s a problem here: using this stress as a motivator only works up to a point. Too much, and your performance not only decreases, but you also experience pretty dire consequences.

Procrastination aside, there’s another reason that deadlines seem to lose their impact.

“Many bosses use the term deadline for everything and often have competing deadlines,” explains Biren Bandara, Founder of Leader School. “The word itself loses its power.”

The science is there to back this concept of “semantic satiation.”

“It’s a kind of a fatigue,” says Leon James, a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii’s College of Social Sciences, in his doctoral thesis. “When a brain cell fires, it takes more energy to fire the second time, and still more the third time, and finally the fourth time it won’t even respond unless you wait a few seconds.”

The more you repeat a word, the harder it is for your brain to attach the same meaning to it. So bosses should be wary of assigning the word “deadline” to tasks that are of little to no importance.

There’s a lot working against all of us when it comes to meeting deadlines. But what can you, as a leader, do to encourage your team members to meet — and maybe even beat — the deadlines you set?

Here’s what you need to know.

Making Deadlines Stick

1. Co-Establish Deadlines

When it comes to setting the initial deadline, you shouldn’t do so in a vacuum.

“Co-establish the deadline with the team members who will do the actual work,” explains Bill Treasurer, Leadership Expert. “Higher-ups often establish deadlines without any understanding of what the work entails. Whenever possible, include the people who do the work when setting the deadline. It ensures that the deadline is based on reality, not wishful thinking.”

Involving your team is helpful for a few reasons:

  • The more they feel a part of the process, the more engaged they’ll be in their work — meaning they’re far more likely to meet that deadline. Transparency is crucial!
  • Involving more opinions will help you combat the planning fallacy — the tendency we all have to severely underestimate the amount of time certain tasks will take. There’s bound to be at least one person on your team who will provide a reality check when your deadline is too ambitious.

As an added bonus, when your team understands that they set the deadline themselves, they have no reason to complain about the due date. And if they do miss their own deadlines? Marketer and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk has two pieces of advice for you at the 4:49 mark in this video:

2. Provide Full Context for a Deadline

“Deadlines are meaningless without context,” explains Bandara. “Be sure to give the reason why the task is important and why the deadline is important.”

Just take a look at these two statements and pick the one that’s more impactful:

  • Statement #1: You need to have that spreadsheet updated by this Friday.
  • Statement #2: You need to have that spreadsheet updated by this Friday so that Susan can incorporate the numbers in our board presentation for Monday.

Duh. The second statement, right?

This is because an arbitrary date wasn’t just pulled from mid-air. Instead, it explains how both the deadline and the task fit into the larger picture. That context will be a huge help to your employees.

It’s not always an easy thing to do. But, the more context you provide your team, the more seriously they’ll take deadlines.

TIP: Need help getting your team members to understand where they fit in the big picture? This article has some helpful tips on avoiding that dreaded domino effect.

3. Highlight Negative Consequences of Delays

Another important part of providing context is touching on the potential negative consequences that could result from missing the deadline.

“Fear has a much stickier impact on the human brain than good news does,” explains Treasurer. “Make sure each team member is keenly aware of the serious dangers of missing the deadline.”

Psychologically, fear is a powerful motivator. And, while it’s not recommended to hang reprimands and punishments over your team members’ heads (that’s a surefire way to drag morale and your work culture down), it’s often worth talking about any potential fallout from a missed deadline.

Using the second statement example from above, you could append one more sentence:

Statement #2: You need to have that spreadsheet updated by this Friday so that Susan can incorporate the numbers in our board presentation for Monday. If those numbers aren’t there for the review of our board members, we’re going to face a lot of pushback and roadblocks on this campaign we’re planning.

It’s another simple and effective way to encourage your team to understand their impact and the effect of their work — which is bound to make them take that deadline a little more seriously.

4. Reinforce the Importance of the Deadline

Deadlines aren’t a “set it and forget it” sort of thing. So if you think you can give your team a deadline once and expect them to show up with perfect work when that date rolls around, you need to think again.

“Deadlines that the boss issues and never brings up again don’t seem that important, and other more seemingly important priorities will take that place,” explains Bandara. “Something I’ve learned is that if there is enough heat and light on something, it will usually get done.”

Deadline and task reminders can be incredibly effective in communicating the criticality of your end date. So, make a plan to offer structured reminders to your team as they work.

TIP: Instead of repeatedly telling your team members when that deadline was, utilize questions to reinforce your point. Ask your team member to remind you what the deadline is for that task. It’s a subtle way to encourage that person to take more ownership of the work and the deadline, as pointed out by communication expert Jean-luc Doumont in a talk at MIT.

5. Set Real Deadlines, Not Fake Ones

What exactly does it mean to set a real deadline? Well, you don’t want to pad them in an attempt to trick your team.

“Some bosses create false deadlines thinking that if the first deadline gets missed, the ‘real’ deadline will be a backstop,” says Treasurer. “As soon as workers discover that they’ve been manipulated, they’ll start blowing off future deadlines. Worse, they won’t trust you.”

“Workers who fail to meet deadlines risk the disapproval — and sometimes the wrath — of their managers and colleagues,” shares Phyllis Korkki in a piece for The New York Times. “Still, some people will blow a deadline, rationalizing that there is both a ‘deadline’ and a ‘real deadline.’ They will use whatever devices and excuses they can muster to buy more time.”

You want your real deadline to be viewed as, well, your real deadline. With that in mind, resist the urge to create fake deadlines in an attempt to manipulate your team. In the end, that will only hurt all of you.

TIP: Want a way to make your real deadlines seem a little more impactful? For larger projects, set your deadline in days — rather than using weeks or months. Researchers at the University of Michigan and USC found that stating deadlines in days better connects your future self to your present self, which increases the sense of urgency.

Below is a video (length: 8:13) outlining a four-step process for setting realistic deadlines:

Show ’Em: Meet Your Own Deadlines

You want your team to meet deadlines — that’s understandable. But, it’s important to realize that a lot of your team’s time management has to do with the way you lead.

In order to encourage your team to take deadlines more seriously, you need to:

  • Involve them in the process of setting deadlines
  • Provide context for the deadlines
  • Emphasize any potential negative consequences of missed deadlines
  • Continually provide reminders and emphasize importance
  • Resist the temptation to pad or set fake deadlines

And, while all of those tips and tricks are important, there’s one thing that carries the utmost weight with your team.

“Just remember, leaders set the tone,” concludes Treasurer. “If leaders cut themselves a break when they miss deadlines, people notice. If leaders set unrealistic deadlines, people notice. If leaders absolve themselves from the consequences of missed deadlines, people notice. So, before expecting your team to honor deadlines, be sure that you’re honoring them!”

For more inspiration in leading a team, visit the Leadership category on our blog.


Author Bio:
Kat Boogaard (@kat_boogaard) is a Midwest-based writer, covering topics related to careers, self-development, and the freelance life. She is a columnist for Inc., writes for The Muse, is a career writer for The Everygirl, and a contributor all over the web.


Originally published at www.wrike.com on July 3, 2017.