All our conversations, in business as well as personal situations, are loaded with expectations. We carry around a set of beliefs, formed throughout our lives, of how things should be. These are overlaid with assumptions that come with job roles, titles and functions.
Organisations are hard-wired for unmet expectations. Projects with big ambitions but insufficient budgets; strategies that start off clear but get foggy with scope-drift; decision making that delights some and disappoints others; how roles and responsibilities interconnect. The complexity and agility of businesses means they’re almost setup for unmet expectations, by design.
Consciously and unconsciously, our expectations are in the background of our conversations. They are there in how we listen, and how we react. Inevitably, they are not always met, and as humans this often causes friction and conflict. We neither want our expectations to remain unfulfilled, nor to fail to meet the expectations of others. This deep-seated human condition lies at the heart of many workplace breakdowns.
What can leaders do to avoid unfulfilled expectations derailing their goals and vision? There are three key elements:
Everyone has background of unspoken, often unconscious expectations that shapes how they give instructions, take action and commit to projects and goals. As a leader, you will have a clear view of how you would like things to be. Your teams will also have preconceived notions of what the organisation, their colleagues and their bosses expect. However, some, even most of these expectations will be unvoiced; even to yourself.
Leaders should start by listening carefully to their own ‘little voice’ to establish what their own background of expectation looks like. How have your personal expectations become established, are they justified or suited to the current context? How have past unfulfilled expectations shaped the context for your current actions? Can you honestly define which expectations are governing the requests you are making? Do your expectations need challenging and are they serving you? You need to manage your own expectations before seeking to gain commitments of others.
Then you need to be clear in articulating those expectations by making clear requests. Everyone will recognise situations in their own organisations where unclear expectations have led to friction and conflict. Yet, many operate in a context of unvoiced background expectations making it likely that they’ll remain unfulfilled. It is the leader’s responsibility to bring expectations to the fore so that everyone is clear. It starts with speaking your expectations out loud, with authenticity. Making your expectations known allows your team to really understand you and your behaviour. It also allows them to think, and act based on clear expectations, instead of their assumptions.
Asking for and listening to your teams’ expectations is essential to uncovering what’s missing and what’s working. Leaders need to uncover the ‘little voices’ of their teams to distinguish and address individuals’ expectations. Operating in full consciousness of this means that effective requests and commitments can be made, and expectations managed, in the foreground. Creating the space and safety for colleagues to counter and make their expectations clear not only prevents disengagement but also builds trusting relationships. Typically, a leader’s expectation is that ‘things will get done,’ whilst team members may expect clear timeframes, support and recognition. Bottoming these details out will ensure that everyone knows where they stand and how to succeed.
It is easy to operate in a context of unfulfilled expectation. Leaders may choose not to voice expectations because they do not want them challenged. Sub-ordinates may not voice theirs for fear of being over-ruled. It is often unlikely that teams will challenge leaders uninvited to be clear on expectations – so teams instead conspire to maintain these backgrounds of unfulfilled expectations that undermine projects and create a culture of disengagement. Therefore leaders must go first to break the cycle of unfulfilled expectations by boldly sharing their own, even if they feel vulnerable at times doing so.
It is incumbent on leaders to be clear and precise in the language that they use. It is often said that actions speak louder than words, but speech acts are leadership. The words leaders use create the potential future they want to inhabit. So, they need to be precise in their language to ensure that they create the potential futures they want. Being conscious of how they communicate expectations is fundamental. As well as voicing clear requests, and space for counter proposals, leaders also have responsibility to create empowering environments that encourage employees to query their own backgrounds of unfulfilled expectation.
The leader’s role is to create opportunities for everyone to fully commit to a potential future. To do this they must not only articulate their own unconscious expectations but allow others to have their expectations acknowledged. Expectation management is ultimately not about controlling what people can expect, but uncovering it and speaking, acting and promising in full understanding of all those expectations. None of us want to disappoint, or to be disappointed. By honestly calling out expectations, a great leader will avoid this for themselves and for their teams.
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