What Do You Expect?

What do you expect, Robert Rose, The Content Advisory

Last week, a client of mine told me about some trouble with a writer on his team. “He’s continually producing subpar work,” he said. “I’m not sure what to do.” 

I asked if he’d considered raising his expectations for writing quality. My client seemed incredulous. “No,” he said. “I’m just trying to get him to first base. I’ve been trying to manage his expectations about where he fits in.”

In business, you hear people talk all the time about the need to manage others’ expectations. Usually, they’re not talking about raising expectations. To manage expectations is to lower what’s expected to a level we’re comfortable performing within.

We rationalize that it’s about communication. In fact, a Google search for the best practices in managing expectations, you find what amounts to this simple advice: “Communicate your intention clearly.” 

This is all well and good. But, you plan to set or 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? 

Consider what it’s like when you’re excited about some innovative thing you want to do or about the potential for your team to accomplish something. Your expectations are off-the-charts high. 

But have you put a damper on that excitement when you take the idea to management? Have you ever managed people’s expectations so that you’d be sure to meet them? Have you ever said (even to yourself), “Let’s under promise and overdeliver?”

This is also why the phrase “exceed expectations” is a flawed way to deliver a service. It’s the equivalent of the question that Nigel Tufnel (the lead guitarist character in the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap) gets asked when he’s showing that his amplifier goes to eleven. “Why don’t you just make ten louder?” the interviewer asks. Nigel explains, “Because this one goes to eleven.” 

If we feel a need to “exceed their expectations,” maybe our expectations aren’t high enough. 

There’s a psychological phenomenon at work here. It’s called the Pygmalion Effect, which is similar to self-fulfilling prophecy. Researchers have found that simply having high expectations for people can propel them to better results than they would otherwise have achieved.

My advice to my client was to believe in his team member. I said, “Instead of telling this writer that you’re trying to get him to first base, why not tell him that you expect a home run?” Align the expectations to 10. It doesn’t have to be 11. It just needs to be highest for both of you. 

Next time you find yourself managing expectations, check whether you’re communicating your own or lowering theirs? 

If we raise their expectations to match our own, might we get more of what we want?

I expect we would.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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