Managing Expectation Gaps

Most of us deal with managing expectations or our belief of what will occur in the future on a regular, if not daily basis.  While expectations come in different sizes or orders of magnitude, they all possess the capability of impacting our feelings, attitude, and interaction with others.  For example, think about how our expectations regarding regular things, such as traffic on our commute, friendliness of a cashier, interaction with our spouse, behavior of our children, or even flavor of a meal can impact our moods, if our expectations are not met.  The heart of the issue with even these simple examples is the gap between the expected and actual outcome.   In essence, the expectation gap encompasses those situations when reality does not meet our desires.

In the workplace, a wide expectation gap not only impacts morale, but also leads to lower levels of productivity and staff turnover. How does this happen? In the simplest sense, as the gap widens employees feel more disappoint and anger. As the anger increases, an employee may stop performing his or her work and begin interfering with others.  While some employee expectations may be unrealistic or addressing their desires may be impossible, a successful manager will ensure that he or she has a good understanding each employee’s expectations and assists in managing those expectations.  

So, how strong are we as managers at assessing expectations? In order to gain a basic snapshot of the alignment between employee expectations and manager perceptions, the result of a recent survey of 500 employees at three levels (support, professional, and manager) in ten customer-focused organizations will be utilized to further our discussion.  The data was collected through an ARG study that inquired regarding employee expectations for the following categories: nature of work duties, workplace environment, supervisor’s leadership capability, fairness of advancement, and rewards.

Figure 1 summarizes the indexed results of employee expectations for all categories, manager perceptions of employee expectations, actual level of realized expectations, and gap between employee expectations and actual level realized.   Overall, the survey indicates that:

  • support staff possess the highest expectations compared to professionals and managers;
  • managers perceptions of expectations align the closest with employee expectations at higher levels in the organization (professionals and managers);
  • managers of managers perceive higher expectations than those expectations actually present among their direct reports;
  • support employees have the largest expectation gap; and
  • professionals and managers realize outcomes closer to their expectation than support staff.
Figure 1: Comparison of Employee Expectations and Manager Perceptions

While by no means are these findings definitive, they provide a basic outline of where expectation gaps may arise in organizations.  If support staff tend to have higher expectations related to work environment, leadership, and advancement as well as have less of their expectations met, managers need to make sure that frequent, honest, and transparent communication establishes a realistic level of employee expectations.   Similarly, if managers of managers have a better idea of the expectations of their direct reports, there may be a training or mentoring opportunity for less experienced managers.   Finally, expectations can change very quickly with the level of connections present within social media.  Getting to know your workforce and their expectations at all levels is not a “once and done” process, but an on-going journey.

Employer Branding

A common question in today’s market is “How can I hire the right people when I need them in such a competitive market?” While some organizations have household name recognition or limitless compensation resources, most of us have limited market presence and resources.  This does not mean we are not great places to work or fail to offer a superior work environment or opportunities, it is just we are not known to potential candidates.  In order to counteract the “hidden gem” problem, a growing number of organizations are turning to employer branding.

What is employer branding? In the simplest sense, it is the application of the marketing concepts and tools utilized to gain customers to attract and hire potential employees.  An employer’s brand is the perception that current, past, and potential employees have regarding what it is like to work for your organization.  These perceptions include most major elements of the workplace experience, including culture, work environment, management style, opportunities, and rewards.  Just like with many major products or brands, certain words, phrases, or descriptions will correspond with each employer and the associated workplace.  Moreover, when combining perceptions, a hierarchy develops that current as well as potential employees rank employers. 

While all employers have a brand by design or not, it requires serious and continuous commitment to have a successful brand that attracts and secures the most desirable candidates. A successful branding process typically includes:

  • becoming familiar with the characteristics of your organization;
  • assessing the characteristics and needs of your potential candidates;
  • gaining insight into the brand and approach utilized by your competitors;
  • defining your value proposition or what makes your organization superior to your competitors; and
  • developing and executing your brand and branding strategy.

Your Organization

A first step to launching as well as maintaining your organization’s brand is to conduct a comprehensive and open assessment of what is positive and negative about your organization.  Very few, if any organizations will only have positive traits, so it is important to have a realistic image of the traits present within your organization.

Potential Candidates

If your organization subscribes to the idea that potential employees would be lucky to work here, many strong candidates will opt to look elsewhere.  In the current labor market, organizations have to be selling their workplace and not expecting high quality hires to focus on sell themselves.  Consequently, it is important that employers have a good understanding of the preferences, needs, and interests of the high quality candidates that they are interested in recruiting,

Competitors

Since most employers do not have the luxury of being the sole, desired employer, it is critical to understand what your competition is offering and how you can demonstrate your competitive advantage compared to opportunities in their workplace.

Value Proposition

Based on the strengths of your organization and knowledge of your competitor’s practices, what you offer potential employees that differentiates your organization should be defined and the associated communication materials developed.

Strategy

Defining your competitive advantage provides the basis for your brand, but your strategy puts your brand into practice.   In the most successful organizations, the brand strategy impacts potential candidates as well as current and past employees.