Whether it’s one of the many side effects of the pandemic or any of the myriad choose-your-own-doomsday scenarios from the last 12 months, we can all agree on one thing: We’re tired.
Didn’t somebody say 2022 would be better?
The last two years have created a kind of fatigue that’s hard to pin down. Ask people how they’re doing, and they say, “Fine.” But it doesn’t take too many follow-up questions to get to the truth at the center: “Actually, no.”
Leading teams, guiding clients, and even working with colleagues feel challenging now. Add in the complications of acquiring new talent, and you can see why managing to higher standards feels so difficult.
Your first impulse is to manage expectations down – to let people off the hook. I think you should do the opposite.
You get what you expect
Last week, a client talked about his struggles with a writer on his team. “He continually produces work that just isn’t good enough,” the client said. “I’m not sure what to do.”
I asked if they had considered raising expectations for writing quality. My client seemed incredulous. “No,” they said. “I’m just trying to get him to first base. If I can get a basic piece out of him, I’ll count it as a win. I’ve been trying to manage his expectations about where he fits in.”
I’ve been in consulting for more than 35 years. And every firm I’ve worked with tells me they focus on managing others’ expectations about delivering great work.
But let’s be clear. In those 35 years, that phrase has never meant raising expectations about what they’ll deliver. To “manage expectations” means lowering expectations.
If you know you’ll surpass expectations (the thinking goes), keep that to yourself so you can surprise and delight people later.
If you search Google for best practices around managing expectations, you’ll find some variation of this simple advice: “Communicate your intentions clearly.”
That’s all well and good. But before you manage expectations for your team, your boss, a client, or a customer, ask yourself this question: Am I communicating my expectations, or am I trying to lower theirs?
Think about that feeling when you’re excited about some innovative thing you want to do or about the potential for your team to accomplish something (especially these days). Your expectations are likely off-the-charts high.
But what do you do? You dampen that excitement when you take that idea to management. You manage people’s expectations, so you’ll be sure to meet them. Have you ever said (even to yourself), “Let’s under promise and overdeliver?”
Exceeding expectations is a flawed way to deliver a service. It’s likely to prompt the equivalent of the response Nigel Tufnel gets in the mockumentary Spinal Tap when he shows that his amplifier goes to 11: “Why don’t you just make 10 louder?”
If you feel you need to “exceed expectations,” then at least one of those expectations (either yours or theirs) isn’t high enough.
Aim for the home run
There’s a psychological phenomenon at work here called the Pygmalion effect. Research shows that high expectations for people can propel them to better results.
Despite the challenges you face (and maybe because of them), you must adjust your expectations about the performance levels you and your team can meet.
With your teams, you can:
- Reprioritize projects and deadlines (delegate or extend due dates as needed)
- Assess the quality of your work, especially the level of detail needed for these projects.
- Balance the work across the team to account for personal stress levels.
But the one thing you shouldn’t do? Lower your expectations.
I advised the client struggling with an underperforming writer to instill the highest expectations. I said, “Instead of telling this writer you’re trying to get him to first base, why not tell him you expect a home run?”
Align the expectations with reality, so you both aim for 10. You don’t have to hit 11. But you need to achieve the highest level you both can.
Next time you find yourself managing expectations, check whether you’re communicating your expectations or lowering theirs.
If you raise expectations to match your own, I expect you’ll get more of what you want.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute