“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.” —
“Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely they were to crack.” — Brandon Sanderson, Author
Expectation Management: Key to Your Success
Whether aware or not, we begin each day with expectations. We flip a switch and expect light. We turn a faucet and expect water to flow. We ask a spouse to pick up milk on the way home and assume they will. We place an order with next-day delivery and look for it to arrive on time. We take a new position and believe it will offer greater fulfilment.
With each experience, we plant seeds for how things “should” be in the future. Yet, when things don’t go according to plan and our needs are unmet, it can lead to a range of negative emotions such as frustration, anger, fear, disappointment, bitterness, resentment, envy and job dissatisfaction.
Today, especially during the pandemic, expectation management is a hot topic. We don’t know what to expect with work, school or travel. Some complain that businesses’ customer service standards are at an all-time low with not enough workers, out-of-stock items and longer hold times. And employees, feeling the uncertainty and/or adapting to new work/home situations, may miss deadlines, work 24/7, perform inconsistently or even dazzle us with their ingenuity.
For decades, Gallup research reports that employees with greater role clarity report high job satisfaction. Leaders who want to retain satisfied employees (and clients) have learned to manage expectations from start to finish.
As a reminder, below are five time-tested suggestions:
- Clarify expectations from the start. At the launch of any project or engagement, agree upon deliverables. Engage with and learn what’s most important to others. Ask questions to detect subtle preferences and preconceptions that might be problematic later. What people expect is based on what they’ve experienced in the past. Help to surface assumptions so that you can address them directly.
- Openly discuss areas of dissatisfaction. Listen carefully to what people share and ask questions to identify what’s not being said. If expectations are unreasonable, explain why—and then specify what you can do. While leaders want to build optimism in their employees and customers, they must remain realistic about situations and alternatives.
- Confirm agreements in writing. Once everyone has been heard, capture what you heard in writing. Give everyone a chance to respond and ask for edits until all are on the same page. Be accurate in your commitments. Remember the adage: Under-promise and over-deliver. It will serve you well.
- Communicate. Transparent communication is key to engagement. Provide updates and invite questions. If new information or expectations surface, address them immediately. Even if what you hear seems totally unrealistic and out of scope, listen to employee and customer concerns. Refer to agreements and discuss what can be done—clearly stating likely changes and other trade-offs. Don’t be like the ostrich with your head in the sand. Ignoring emerging expectations won’t make them disappear. They need to be addressed head-on, with dignity and respect.
- Follow through. Deliver on your commitments by doing what you say you will. If you’ve promised something by a certain date or time, honor that agreement. If something unforeseen prevents you from keeping your commitment, notify everyone in advance. Others need to know that you respect and value them. Honesty builds trust, and trusting relationships create a solid foundation for managing expectations.
Becky Ripley, Senior Consultant
Sustainable Legacies and Excursion Learning Practice Leader