We often find the root of our disappointment in unmet expectations.
You get frustrated when your phone has no signal on the commute to work, but not if you’re hiking in a remote area. The former is a source of aggregation, and the latter of relief.
The only difference is what we expect, and how we prepare for that expectation.
Teams will face challenges and hardships. Things will go wrong. Their expectations will determine much of how they react and how they orient their emotions towards those setbacks.
As a leader, your ability to set expectations offers protection from some frustrations that come with achieving your team’s goals. It can even help your team grow.
Being intentional about setting expectations with your team is an often overlooked art of leadership. Let’s explore how you can build artful expectation management into your leadership practice.
The importance of expectation
No one likes uncertainty. Expectation is a coping mechanism to paint a vision of our future, to help us define an image of our destination.
We use it to add some stability to our lives, and some clarity to the journey we are on.
Expectation also defines our measures for important details in our lives. Whether a vacation or movie or date was good, great, or awful is measured against our expectations more than some objective standards.
Low expectations can’t save a terrible meal, but they can make the difference in how pleased you are. I say this as someone who has eaten sushi from a gas station and raved about it for years.
Expectations set the baseline, and the baseline shapes our feelings about the result. So the more realistic and frequently updated that baseline, the better off we will be.
I saw a talk with Brene Brown where she mentioned the importance of earning trust. She used the metaphor of a jar filled with marbles. Every time you have an interaction where you show your trustworthiness to your colleagues, you deposit a marble in the jar.
Your credibility and trust build gradually. You earn it with integrity.
We should look for opportunities to do just that, and expectation setting is one way to accomplish this.
By being clear about hardships, challenges, and potential setbacks, and honestly sharing the less idealized realities of your efforts, you are establishing credibility. You are also making expectations more realistic.
People set expectations for themselves, so you don’t have complete control as a leader of how the team frames their videos of what is happening and how.
However, the earlier you influence them by providing them with the information and your judgement, you can guide those expectations to a more realistic place.
By acting quickly to provide accurate and transparent information about the situation, and openly expressing your hopes and concerns, the team can filter the information not just through their own experience, but yours as well.
Of course, the power of your influence is only as good as the trust you have built with the group. This is why your approach to handling the issues is so important: it affects the trust they show in you.
How you handle the bad is more important than the good
I read recently that companies gain the most customer loyalty not when things go well, but when customer service does an excellent job of rectifying a problem. That’s why companies with the best satisfaction scores have invested so much in handling issues.
Because challenges always happen, the ability to surpass peoples’ expectations when the someone handles the issue actually makes them more satisfied than they would have been otherwise. This is an example of surpassing expectations.
As a leader, you can help define the challenges and set the expectations for what the team will face. Then, you can share what you intend to do to help the team overcome them.
By handling the bad with honesty, transparency, and directness, you establish trust faster than if things simple went fine. You are also minimizing the damage of unmet expectations when things go poorly.
Recognizing where you need to set expectations is the critical first step.
What does your team expect from you or their task at hand? What are the expecting as far as progression or their own growth from the work?
Next, where are places where the likely outcomes might not meet those expectations?
Once you have answered those questions, you can begin the conversations needed to align the expectations you identified with the outcomes you see as most probable.
This isn’t a dark art: you can be honest about what you are doing. A simple preface of “I want you to be clear on what we can expect” is direct and signals the goal of the conversation.
The future is impossible to predict, and the factors shaping project work and learning are complex and diverse. As the situation changes and as you know more, update your team with the new information and your assessment of how it changes the predictions for future issues.
This is an excellent way to build a consistent and open dialog. On that theme, be sure to listen to what your team shares as you have these conversations. They see things you can’t, and they may help you adjust your expectations as well. Try to incorporate all the feedback and input you get to form a more accurate prediction for your expectation setting.
Expectations shape morale and are a prism through which your people will see events and outcomes. They have an outsized role on so many elements of the leadership effort.
While you cannot control them completely, these steps can help you manage them and build a foundation of more realistic, trust-based expectations that foster effective communication and good progress.