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.

The Truth is Deceptive

With the recently resolved US debt ceiling crisis, people have returned to talking about who owns America instead of will there be anything left to own.  As the media returns its focuses to the Chinese ownership of US debt, it was interesting to find out that only eight percent of US debt is held by the Chinese.  See the CNN article from July that summarizes the major ownership stakes: ( In fact, foreign investors own around $4.5 trillion while US investors hold $45 trillion.

I thought it might be interesting to share the article with a few well educated and news suave people that I know to get their reaction.  Not surprisingly, the majority asked if it was really true and how could the result be so different from current public perception.  In about half of the conversations, the conclusion was drawn that talking about the other organizations and countries on the list do not make as strong of headlines.  The remainder agreed that people need someone to blame for the fiscal decisions as of late and domestic investors, local governments,  or the United Kingdom is not as blame worthy.

As I considered the conservations,  several elements that relate to how deceptive the truth can be came to mind:

  • People believe their own opinions more than facts
  • People do not always say what they believe
  • We need straw people

People Believe Their Own Opinions more than Facts

Most of us draw conclusions quickly and remain closely wed to what we believe.  As leaders,  it is tempting to default to what we know and hold tightly to what has been successful for each of us personally.  This same mindset yields the tendency of assuming if we arrive at a conclusion, it must be the right conclusion.  I worked on an employee termination case with a client a few years ago.  There was sound evidence against the employee related to a number of serious infractions of professional conduct,  but the manager refused to participate in or even discuss the termination process.  When I asked the manager for his reasoning,  he simply stated he did not believe the evidence and nothing would convince him otherwise.  As much as we want to believe something,  sometimes we have to step back and ask with are the facts.

People Do Not Always Say What They Believer

We live in a world that rewards filtered speech.  Although filtered speech can take many forms, the two most common include softening and positioning. Think how common it is to produce results with a quarter of your time and spend the other three quarters of your time developing a creative way to soften, wordsmith, or disguise the results.  A client gave me an extreme example recently about how they knew the organization was out of money,  but instead of figuring out how to increase revenues,  most of their time was dedicated to describing their shortcomings in a positive manner.  Position is used by anyone that wants to send a message different than what they believe for their own advantage.  The classic workplace example is the employee that says he or she does not want the promotion repeatedly when behind the scenes and in his or her heart that is exactly what is wanted.

We Need Straw People

If we are brutally honest,  we all seek someone to blame besides ourselves when the situation is more than we can accept.  In years of working with employees all over the US and abroad,  it is very rare to encounter an employee that equates his or her employment issues with something within his or her control.  Most of us look for someone else to link our anxiety to and place solutions outside of our own capabilities.  A common approach to allocating blame is to a select a dummy or straw target.

If things were truly at “face value,” life would be so much simpler.  As leaders,  we have to not only deal with the facts, but what the facts can and have been transformed into by those that work for us.