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.

Change Is Coming Again

Figure 1: Acceptance of Change

As human resource professionals we deal with change all of the time.  We add and lose employees, change the assignment of duties, assist with altering the strategic direction of the organization, as well as deal with daily challenges.  The ability to plan for change, manage change, and get the most out of change has become key competencies for human resource professionals over the last few decades.  The current economic challenges have required considerable change in most organizations.

Recently, there has been considerable formal and informal discussion among employees and leaders alike on what human resource changes are next.  A recent survey by the HR Leadership Council identified three key changes in the near term:

  • 25 percent of high performers plan to leave in the next year;
  • 75 percent of organizations plan to restructure in the next six months; and
  • 75 percent of companies plan to reduce costs in the next year.

Each of these changes will alter the composition and morale of the workforce.  The combination of high performers leaving, restructuring of current duties again in a short period of time, and efforts to revisit the reduction of costs will cause another wave of change in most organizations.  How will employees respond to more change?

Figure 2: Impact of Change

A 2012 HCS survey examined where the average employee is on a spectrum of acceptance of additional change.  Almost 80 percent of respondents have a low acceptance of new changes (see Figure 1).  Although most employees do not readily embrace change, this is higher than the average benchmark of 55 percent from the 2002-2008 time period.  In other words, employees are fatigued from recent changes and are not looking forward to more uncertainty, instability, and change.  What has been the legacy of change since 2008? The same group of 1,200 employees was asked about how change had impacted them individually and as a team.  The responses appear in Figure 2.  Almost 80 percent indicated that morale is lower than before while more than 70 percent felt that resources had decreased.  Reduced productivity is a close third at 68 percent.   Customer service and commitment scored the lowest

overall, but still was impacted in approximately 40 percent of organizations.

In most organizations, there is a fatigue from near constant change during the economic downturn. As new changes near, it will be harder to deal with the personal and professional cost of transition.  The best thing for us to do is to:

  • Understand the type and nature of changes;
  • Plan for the change; and
  • Communicate at all levels about the change.

Mood Magic: Dispelling the Grumpiness

This morning I started a focus group with a group of employees that looked unhappier than the average worker on Monday morning when the weather is nice outside.  All but one employee had the facial expression and body language of people that would rather be anywhere than discussing how the performance of their organization could improve. After introductions and discussions of the weather, we turned to the state of the organization and employee morale.  One senior manager made the comment that she really does not know how she musters the strength to come back to the job every day. She discussed how as her day progresses she is increasingly convinced that she should leave at the end of the day and not return.  She mentioned how before she goes home she just sits and contemplates writing her resignation letter.  However, something truly amazing happens overnight: she feels better about her job at the beginning of the new day and returns.

More than likely, most of us have experienced this renewal at one point or another.  Almost ten years ago, research conducted by Timothy Judge at University of Florida found that employee moods can literally change overnight (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/12/041203084136.htm).  According to this research, talking about your day with friends or family and a good night’s sleep play a key role in employee satisfaction as well as moods.  In order to reduce the potential reduction in productivity from bad moods, it is important to ensure that employees have the time to renew.  Research conducted in 2011 by Nancy Rothbard describes the cost to productivity of those employees that come to work without this renewal or those that arrive at work in a bad mood (http://www.newsworks.org/index.php/healthscience/behavioral-health/item/16611-bad-mood-affects-work-performance).  In her study with a large call center, the number of calls answered and how well issues were dealt with diminished considerably when employees were in a bad mood at the start of the day.

So, how can we improve the mood of others?

  • Start the day well
  • Address issues
  • Increase challenges

Start Day Well

Research clearly indicates that an employee that starts their day in a good mood is going to be more productive.  Even if yesterday was a bad day, it is important that the past be left behind.  Organizations have adopted a number of strategies to accomplish this from team activities, joint exercising, and reasonable work-life balance initiatives.  Most people begin their day with the stress of children, traffic, and other obligations, while breaking the routine even for a few minutes upon arrival at work can be very beneficial to the productivity of the individual and the team.

Address Issues

It is only human to procrastinate over those things that we do not want to deal with right now.  It can be as simple as giving someone bad news, reconciling with a coworker, finishing a report, or meeting with your boss.  As leaders, part of our responsibility and our own effectiveness relates to how well we can assist employees in this situation.  It is important that we advise employees to deal with those things that are impacting their moods.  As part of the resolution process, it may require listening to the issue.  This is an important part of letting something go for most people and is a relatively easy role for us to play.

Increase Challenges

People enjoy a challenge and it is common for someone’s mood to improve when there is a sense of purpose.  Although it might seem counter-intuitive to give someone a new assignment when he or she is having a bad day, the new challenge can change their perspective in a positive way.   As human beings, we seek fulfillment from what we do.  We want to feel that we have an important role and what we do makes a difference in some manner.

Cloudy and a Chance of Grumpy: Dealing with Bad Moods

Most of us have dealt with a bad mood of our own as well as the experience of being on the receiving end of someones bad mood.  Bill Watterson the creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip sums it up well: Nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around.  Positive and negative moods are part of workplace as much as life.  How many times have you commiserated with a co-worker that someone is “just in a bad mood?”  A creative as well as funny door hanger I saw in a client’s office was the boss bad mood meter.  Support staff could enlighten unsuspecting visitors to the mood of the boss by three color coded levels:

  • Yellow meant that the boss was granting on wish today and it is not yours.
  • Orange indicated that the boss is consuming small employees and it would be best to come back another day.
  • Red guaranteed that you would not return if you entered and you should make preparations for the future of your family.

Although the office administrator created the door hanger out of good humor, it captures a regular and serious concern of most employees: how do moods impact my ability to complete my work?

One of the prevailing theories of bad moods relates to an idea known as ego depletion (http://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/584/baumeisteretal1998.pdf).  Ego depletion assumes that self-control is a limited resource and as we deplete it we have less ability to keep our personality positive.  As Baumeister and his colleagues indicate, “choice, active response, self-regulation, and other volition may all draw on a common inner resource.”  Consequently, if we focus our mental abilities on one area of self-control, we have fewer resources left to actually ensure that we keep negative emotions in check. In other words, our capacity for exerting willpower is finite and while we might use it in one area, we possess less for other areas.

Based on this interpretation, more stressful times lead to more negative moods.  As we work harder, have more choices to make over scarce resources, and accept less than optimal alternatives, we are exhausting our positive account.  If things keep coming at us and we have no method of replenishing, we end up sharing our bad moods more often.

What is the best way of dealing with a bad mood or the feeling of just being tapped out? Research has shown that there are three ways to positively improve someone’s mood:

  • Consider positives
  • Stop blame
  • Forgive

Consider Positives

At one point or another, your mother probably gave you advice to count your blessings or think about all the things that are going well as an elixir to a bad mood.  As a child, this wisdom automatically initiated a cycle of she does not understand how unhappy I am, she has never experienced what I am going through, and I will have to pout for a while until I feel better.  There is a lot of truth to our mother’s wisdom.  Research has shown that taking even a simple inventory of things that are positive replenishes our ability to deal with those things that are more negative.  Most of us gravitate to the negative and inflate its importance.  A slight change in perspective can make a difference.

Stop Blaming

Most of us seek to blame someone or something else when we are in a bad mood.  We like the idea that the current feelings arose from outside of ourselves and we are victims of circumstances beyond our control.  Blaming in workplace rarely solves anything.  It is important to determine what is bothering you, but you should look within yourself first for how to solve it. A considerable amount of negativism in the workplace relates to a feeling of powerlessness or a lack of engagement.   In these cases, going to your supervisor with a few ideas that help you and the organization, can lead to better outcomes.

Forgive

As I work with groups in a variety of organizations, I hear on a regular basis about someone has “wronged” someone else.  There is a near endless list of large and small actions that have deprived someone of their just credit, respect, assignment, raise, or promotion.  In order to be productive and work well together, we have to let things go.  This is not to say we should not stand up for ourselves or seek justice when it is warranted, but carrying grudges is as unhealthy to the individual as it is to your organization.

We all talk about recharging or refueling our tank when we have made it through a rough week.  The recharging process is a critical part of protecting against our internal moods reducing our as well as others productivity.