Setting expectations

Life is full of interactions with others. We meet new colleagues at work, we build new relationships in our neighbourhoods, and we might be in a personal relationship that results in opportunities to set and meet expectations on a regular basis every day. Each of those interactions is an opportunity to strengthen or weaken the relationship with the other person. In many of the coaching and mentoring conversations that I have, it is clear that the ability to set and manage expectations successfully is a skill that many of us need to work on.

In a work context, starting a new role and having a new boss can be daunting events. They result in similar challenges, so I’m going to treat them as roughly equivalent for the purposes of this conversation. When starting a new role, we need to understand our expectations of the organisation and what our management expects of us. Understanding the role’s requirements requires asking and getting clear answers to a series of questions. For example, are we expected to deliver as an individual contributor, or as part of a team? What are the timelines required for delivery? What format do the deliverables take? Who else depends on the output – in other words, what stakeholders do we need to build relationships with? A key question to sum up the others is, “What does success look like?”.

When working with a new manager, we need to understand, in addition to the deliverables, how they like to be kept updated. Some people like to receive detailed powerpoint-based updates every week. Others prefer to get a bulleted email with no more than ten items. Yet others want verbal updates once a week and then monthly or quarterly summaries. Regardless of their preferences, every manager will expect us to show up for our checkpoints fully prepared.

From our point of view, we might have certain things that we expect if we’re successful. We may want to get a particular rating at the end of a performance cycle, a pay rise, or the chance of promotion based on how well we do in the current role. We may specify that we need support to obtain a new certification or get assistance in clearing roadblocks to progress.

From a customer services perspective, a company that promises an experience or a quality of service it fails to meet will soon find itself pilloried on social media. Failing to live up to espoused company values will result in similar reactions from both staff and customers; Disney’s lacklustre response to recent Florida legislation is an example of this kind of effect.

In a personal context, failing to keep our promises is a sure way to damage relationships, whether they are social or familial. When we commit to something and fail to turn up, our family, friends and neighbours feel disappointed and, potentially, hurt. In my marriage, I’ve discovered that agreeing to something and then forgetting about it is one of the fastest ways to frustrate my wife. We all have loss-aversion hardwired into our brains – being promised something that doesn’t materialise causes us to react negatively. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m very careful not to commit to something with my kids if I am not 100% that I can deliver on it.

So how do we set and manage expectations successfully? It boils down to communication and commitment. We need to be very clear about what we need and understand the other person’s requirements clearly. As stated above, that means asking appropriately detailed questions and taking note of the responses. Playing back what we’ve heard to the other person lets them know we’ve heard them and gives them the opportunity to correct any misapprehensions on our part. Asking clarifying questions to deepen understanding can be necessary depending on the nature of the commitment. And then showing up and delivering is the final piece – a practice that many of us struggle with in different aspects of our lives. Boiling it down further – find out what is required, then do what we say we’re going to. Another practice that falls into the category of “simple, but not easy!”.

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