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.

Ensure Leaders Are Adding Value

Organizations develop vacuums as they evolve over time.  However, organizations like nature “abhor a vacuum” and something normally fills the empty space.   The idea of nature “abhorring a vacuum” or horror vacui arises from Greek philosopher Parmenides in On Nature.  Today, the media uses the expression on a regular basis to account for the lack of strong leadership or approval of a leader’s actions during a crisis. A recent example would be the multiple news sources that cited a “lack of leadership” as a primary cause of current economic downturn.   Within organizations, typically we use this idiom to describe a lack of leadership-related outcomes:  communication, planning, vision, or change management.

Figure 1: Leadership Value Levels

In order to prevent a vacuum from developing a leader has to add value in three different ways (see Figure 1).  As an individual employee, we add value by exceeding expectations, meeting our organization’s goals, improving on work processes, gaining new skills, and supporting others.  As leaders, we are expected to add value as individuals as well as leverage the capabilities of others.  In other words, we help employees reach their full potential while concurrently meeting the organization’s goals.  The final piece of the value adding equation is the component that relates to adding value to the shareholders or citizens as well as the employees.   This basic contribution increases organizational value and employee engagement, satisfaction, and productivity through communication, visioning, and planning. This is a monumental task when you consider that it takes years for most of us to:

  • understand the factors that enable us as individuals to add the most value while finding balance with those things that reduce our value;
  • learn to analyze what motivates others and how it differs across individuals and changes over time; and
  • develop the skills to motivate and coordinate others in the most rewarding and productive manner.

So, how as leaders do we find this critical balance? There are three major actions we can take to increase the value we add as leaders:

  • Become value experts
  • Recognize that variation in factors
  • Continually work to improve factors

Become Value Experts

Leaders more than anyone else have to become value experts and understand how value can be calculated and increased.  Although peer employees can play a minor role in improving the contributions of others, it is primarily the purview of leaders to increase value.  Each of us need to develop the skills to take an inventory of characteristics of those that work for us, determine the best method of building on those characteristics, and encourage and monitor progress.

Recognize Variation in Factors

As most new leaders discover, the competencies that helped you succeed individually are not the same ones that enhance the value you add as a leader.   SHRM does a nice job summarizing the major leadership competency categories: leading the organization, leading self, and leading others (  Although about half of the competencies on the list would be needed to advance in most organizations, the degree of attainment could be less than what a leader would typically need on a regular basis.

Continually Work to Improve Factors

Understanding how people work and think significantly improves the value we add as leaders.  It is on this foundation that we are able to begin to develop strategies for engaging employees in the most productive manner possible.  Gaining these skills and putting them into practice takes effort and experience. Even if the basic characteristic is present, practice will improve results.

As leaders, we are charged with taking the resources we are allocated and maximizing their value.  A simple analogy that conveys the expectation of all leaders is that some squander what they have, some struggle to keep what they started with, and some produce returns on the investment of resources.  If we are to add value as leaders, we want to produce high returns.

Management Dichotomies: Simple Thinking in a Complex Environment

So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.

Peter Drucker

The great management guru Peter Drucker sums up management very well in the above quote.  Managing other people has been a challenge for humanity from the very beginning.  Moreover, the quest for the best methods and tools continues today as we move into a more complex world.  I worked with a group of managers recently that listed all the tools and even tricks that they have tried to get employees to want to come to work, do the work assigned, and do a good job.  The consensus within the group was that about 80 percent of their efforts failed while 20 percent actually increased the production of their employees.  We spent most of the afternoon discussing the Pareto principle or the idea that 80 percent of your outcomes arise from 20 percent of your efforts.  However, as we have discussed in previous posts, the discussion began to incorporate dichotomies:

  • “This technique always works while this other never works.”
  • “Employees are always this way and are never that way.”
  • “I only use this approach because it is right and the other is wrong.”

Managers have the challenge of dealing with competing demands and needs on a regular basis.  When there is complexity, it is easy to categorize the world or available options into two alternatives.  Given that managers have a multitude of factors and concerns to deal with, they are easily impacted by “black and white” dichotomies.   What are some common management dichotomies that we would benefit from altering? A simple one is management style.  Management style is the way that managers and leaders make decisions and relate to subordinates.   Three factors that impact management style include:

  • Control – empowerment
  • Manager – leader
  • Star – not star

Control – empowerment

Most managers early in their career select their personal style of decision making and work oversight. Considerable research as well as general discussion has gone on over the last four decades regarding the merits of a less controlled or more empowered workforce.  Many of us in an effort to define our own position or style will think of work oversight as being controlling or not or decision making as being centralized or decentralized.    A completely uncontrolled workforce just as a completely controlled workforce would yield less than optimal results.  Employees need balance and most of excel the most somewhere in the middle .

Manager – leader

Time and again, I hear employees in leadership positions talk about if a person is a leader or not. Usually, the comment is not as related to position as ability.  Leaders come from different groups and levels in an organization and do not always possess the requisite title. In many ways, leadership is a continuum that starts with being a recognized worker and culminating with becoming an organizational leader.  There are phases and stages between and it does not make sense to think of someone as being simply a leader or not.

Star – not star

Organizations are filled with average employees.  As shocking as it may sound, even if an organization is an industry leader, it has a central tendency or average employee that is representative of most employees in the organization.  In an attempt to identify those that are “stars” or very high performers, it is easy to think about people as being a “star” or not.  Although a very finite number of employees are stars (less than five percent), we may at times forget that the bulk of our workforce comes from the middle of our performance spectrum. We leave the needs and capabilities of these employees out at our own peril.

It is important to remember that we have to manage in the gray areas where employees need a mix of control and empowerment, managers grow to leaders, and employees are not stars, but provide consistent and regular production.