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.

Passion

Most of us hope that we will find a job that makes us passionate.  A lucky few succeed at this quest and spend their workdays doing something that fulfills them on a professional as well as personal level.  Think about Steve Jobs and the aura of excitement he projected (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/08/business/how-steve-jobs-infused-passion-into-a-commodity.html?pagewanted=all). In most cases, passion manifests itself in two related forms: job and organization. Passion for a job determines how emotionally connected an employee is to his or her work and producing the best possible results, while passion for the organization pertains to emotional connection of the employee to the purpose, values, and vision of his or her organization.  The key to both relates to a strong emotional bond or link.

For those of us that fail to find employment in an area that we are passionate about; work affords little more than a mundane chore while we sit in a holding pattern on the way to something that makes us passionate.  The image that comes to mind is the stereotypical worker leaving an office or factory looking depleted as he or she goes home with another day of the same soul crushing work waiting tomorrow.

As leaders, we have all worked with employees that had the skills and abilities to be a star performer, but never developed the passion necessary to excel.  Early in my career, I assumed that the primary responsibility for passion resides with the workplace.  Basically,  if a person is not passionate, the failure to create that spark should be addressed by the employer.  However, what most of us discover through experience rearranges our view of how passion works.  Passion comes from inside the person.  We bring our passion with us and if the alignment between employee and job feeds the employee’s passion, then it grows.  When it comes to passion, selection overshadows training.

What can we do to increase the passion in our organizations?

  • Ensure that your organization has a clear mission and set of values;
  • Link your values to your business processes and desired outcomes;
  • Communicate about the organization’s passion;
  • Reward employees that show passion and results;
  • Find other opportunities for those that are unhappy;
  • Allow people to grow how they want to while meeting the organization’s needs;
  • Hire for passion and commitment to your mission and similarities in values; and
  • Take a chance on a candidate that excels at passion even if they fail to possess the ideal level of experience or education.

Delegation by Process

The modern workplace moves a little bit faster every year as we create faster and better ways of doing things.  A key part of being successful in this ever expanding environment is by delegating.  Although delegating has a rather bad rap with most employees, it is a key component of management effectiveness.  The negative connotations arise from the extremes: over and under delegation.  Most of us have witnessed a manager that delegated everything and left employees wondering what exactly is done with all of the free time.  This type of manager creates an unbearable environment where the employee does the work of a superior for what amounts to inferior compensation.  A more lucky few have probably seen the manager that tries to do it all because he or she has control issues, does not trust employees or just does not understand how to lead.  Both behaviors are damaging to the manager, employees, and work performed.

Although most discussion of delegation focuses on making the assignment, there is more involved in successful delegation.  Delegation has three key components: assign, monitor, and report.

Assign

After identifying and defining the task, the person to assume responsibility should be identified and the assignment made.  It is important that manager clearly articulate the task, resources available, level of responsibility, and expected time for completion.  As part of the assignment process, the manager should entertain any concerns that the employee has that impact successful completion of the task.  A common concern of employees is the current workload and the potential conflict with other assignments.  It is critical that these concerns be considered before and during assignment of the task.

Monitor

It is in everyone’s interest that the task be completed successfully.  The manager as well as the employee wins.  Too often, the manager views the assignment of the task as the end of his or her involvement until happily collecting the fruits of the employee’s labor.  A successful manager monitors progress on the task and provides any needed support.  Established reporting or meeting times provides structure for task management and ensures that resources, expectations, and outcomes remain aligned between the employee and the manager.

Feedback

Delivery of the required outcome is a key part of the delegation process, but should not be the terminal point.  The manager and the employee should evaluate the delegation experience, identify areas for improvement, and celebrate success.  An employee that handles the delegated tasks well is a true asset and should be developed and rewarded.