Managing expectations

Posted February 3, 2010 in Career Management, Communication, Latest News & Insights

Here’s a little trick I learned from a consulting colleague about how to manage the expectations of yourself, your boss or your direct reports.  You could do this exercise with peers too.

One of the biggest gaps I’ve found as a leader is the gap between what I consider to be “at performance” expectations vs. “exceeding” expectations.  In my head, with my teams, it’s always been “clear” to me when I felt someone was performing at, above or below expectations.  But here’s the thing… I was shocked to find that people didn’t always have the same standards around performance as I had.  Gasp!

I was sharing this frustration one day with a colleague who suggested that I spell out really clearly what the expectations were at each level: At, Below and Exceeding.

Sounds like a simple exercise until you do it.  At the time, I was leading a sales team, so it was easy to nail the performance expectations in terms of sales results, number of clients, size of funnel etc.  What got harder was to outline the “soft” stuff.  Customer responsiveness, team playing, attitude… and yet, that’s where they were falling down.

As an executive coach, I’ll often ask my “coachees”: are you clear on the expectations of your position?  9 times out of 10, they’ll say “I think so” (uh oh… these days you’d better know so). I’ll then say: “do you know what “exceeding” your bosses expectations would look like?”  This is usually when things start to get even less clear.  We’ll then list what we think the “at expectations” are and the “exceeding” are.

So, what do you think happens when I check in with the boss to see what their ideas are on “at” vs “exceeding”?  Invariably, the boss considers the things that the employee thought were “exceeding” expectation to be “at” expectation.  Which has led me to think a few things:

  1. Bosses have high expectations (often true, especially if they’re type A bosses)
  2. Bosses often don’t articulate their expectations clearly and assume – like I used to – that everyone has the bar set at the same level;
  3. Individuals are often operating blindly… thinking they’re doing great, when they’re just “meeting” expectations in their bosses mind.

It’s like thinking your an A student and finding out you’ve been pulling a solid B.

So, here are two things for you to think about doing this week:

  1. Take a vow not to be one of those bosses who isn’t clear on expectations.  Create your “at, below and exceeding” list for all your key positions and then share them with your team;
  2. Make sure you’re not operating in a blind spot.  If you’re not sure if you’re on the same page as your boss, create your own list and take it to him/her for feedback.

When you’re creating your list, think about not just “hard” targets and skills, but also the “softer” behaviour stuff that is crucial to success.  Think about what the person needs to be “saying” and “doing” to be successful in the role (not just the “what” but the “how”).  The key is then to have a good conversation with your direct reports about your expectations… are they realistic, are they clear, etc.  Do the same with your boss.  Once everyone’s on the same page, future conversations will be much easier.

Don’t let expectations be in the eye of the beholder.  By setting and articulating clear expectations, you’ll get everyone on the same page and set a solid foundation for future performance discussions.

Happy leading!


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