The downside of expectations | Mike Cook

As an employer it is generally considered to be sound practice to make sure all of your employees know what you expect of them. Generally, when you clearly and very specifically state your expectations it saves a lot of confusion in the long run and allows for successful coaching of employees if and when the time comes that expectations are not met. Besides, think from the employee’s standpoint, what employee wants to be continually surprised by criticism? This may sound silly but employers and managers do it all the time—they think they’ve fully and clearly expressed their expectations of employees when in fact they haven’t. And that leads to confusion, disappointment, and in the worst case, otherwise very capable employees leaving because they are simply unwilling to put up with what I’d call “ambush management.”

I do not mean to infer that many employers or managers are hard to work for, quite the contrary. Some of the most well meaning employers are those guilty of having a flawed approach to setting expectations simply because they are unaware that they have not fully set employees up to be successful. Allow me to demonstrate what I am implying here.

Last Tuesday my wife and I decided to go out to dinner at a place we had heard good things about. It was about a three-block walk from our hotel. When we arrived at the address of the restaurant we discovered that it was actually in a third floor location so we headed for the elevator. We entered the elevator with a group of other people and once inside I noticed that there was a man with a lit cigarette hanging from his mouth with smoke curling up into his face! Yikes! How long has it been since you’ve had this experience? I looked at my wife and she made the “Ewwww!” face but neither of us said anything. Whether you are a non-smoker, former smoker or currently smoke you certainly do not expect to see someone smoking on an elevator these days, do you?

Oh yes, did I mention that we were in Lanzhou, China?

See what happens, without the full knowledge of the expectations, you get upset or at least have a very strong negative judgment about the situation. In this case, if either my wife or I had said anything, first of all no one would have understood us. Secondly, if we did manage to communicate, very likely we would have offended someone as smoking in China is an acceptable practice in most public places, unlike in the United States. So, we would have been imposing a set of expectations on a group of people who had no reason to understand our dissatisfaction.

This is a pretty easy situation to understand for most of us, local customs being different, etc. However, as easy as it is to understand, it demonstrates the dangers of carrying unexpressed expectations over from one context to another unconsciously.

Some years back I received an invitation from an employer to consult on a particular problem he was having. It seemed that he had hired and then in quick order dismissed a series of senior project managers in his business and he wanted help identifying candidates for the position since obviously competent project managers were harder to find than he imagined.

By virtue of several conversations with a few of the current employees it became apparent that more than one of the project managers that had been dismissed were held in high regard by the people they managed. This fact of course called for further exploration and in the course of more research I found that the owner of the business had himself held the position of senior project manager until fairly recently, actually about a year, a time period during which he had hired and dismissed three very experienced project managers. Knowing what I do about starting a business and then bringing in other people to do what I’ve done, I know this: no one does it the way you do, or in this case did. I suspected the owner’s disappointment in the people he hired had more to do with the manner in which they went about their business than about the results they produced. Honestly, sometimes (often unconsciously) the way things get done means more to us than the results we intend.

I tested my theory by asking the employer directly if he ever thought anyone would do the job as well as he had. His face reddened and the conversation was short. I didn’t get invited back! Was he embarrassed or insulted, or maybe both? I never found out but still wonder if he ever managed to find the project manager who would do the job just like he did.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Bellingham area.

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