Managing Expectations can be tricky….but it’s worth it

13 Mar 2016

Isn’t it time to take your hands out of your pocket and your head out of the sand so that you can finally have those conversations you’ve been meaning to for some time?

Managing Expectations

For two years Sarah and Rachel worked together well as peers.  They had demanding roles and cooperated well together.  However, soon after Sarah was promoted to the role of line manager over her former peers, the relationships dynamic between the team and in particular with Rachel, shifted. Sarah exerted more authority, and began having trouble relating to some of the team. Sarah was disappointed in their performance; she expected more from them.  Affected by tension among the team, Rachel’s performance at work fell off noticeably. From Rachel’s perspective, Sarah moved from being a co-operative peer taking a we-centred approach to being directive and i-centred.  Each thought the issue lay with the other person. Trust between them became strained and others noticed how defensiveness now represented their interactions.

Dealing with differences that arise between individuals who have different expectations for each other can get tough but it’s always worthwhile.  Expectation gaps can happen in whole range of situations and some are mentioned below.  It often happens when there’s a shift in role, a breakdown in relationship and changes in responsibilities.

If the expectation-gaps are not addressed, if  ‘clarity’ is not achieved, then relationships and performance can be affected long term.

Strangely, the need to ‘manage expectations’ often becomes blindingly obvious only after a gap has come to light.  It’s often not valued beforehand. When the psychological contract becomes strained, it shows in the interactions and conversations. They may, for example, move from being friendly and cooperative, to abrupt and defensive.

This gap can arise because assumptions are made ‘that we’re on the same page when we’re not’; that ‘someone has briefed me when they haven’t’ or when someone thinks ‘it’s obvious’ when it isn’t.   The gap can also be heralded by a sense that you don’t quite trust the person as much as you used to.

The Psychological Contract
What is the psychological contract mentioned above ?  it’s a concept that gained currency in the 1990’s and is defined as the perceptions of the two parties, employee and employer, of what their mutual obligations are towards each other’.

The Psychological Contract is, in effect,  a series of managing expectations conversations; some refer to these as ‘rules of engagement’.  Until expectations are put on the table, both parties have their own idea of what’s needed, expected; often quite different to the other person’s.   This can lead to a break down in trust and before you know it, everyone in the team can sense the tension.  Unspoken assumptions and changing expectations become ‘reality gaps’. … all of which are avoidable.

Sharing answers to two simple statements while sitting down together can begin to shift the psychological contract from distrust to trust. The two statements are
-What I need and expect from you (as my direct report/line manager/client/supplier/etc)
-What you can expect from me

Often we see reality with threatened eyes when trust becomes strained. We perceive actions, conversations, email, and decisions from a different perspective; we become cautious, resentful, and suspicious.  This causes changes in behaviour such as we expect more than is possible; we’re more sensitive to feeling wrong; we guard information when we should share it; we interpret other’s actions with scepticism or cynicism and we retreat in order to protect ourselves.

If you wish to manage employee, client, employer, supplier you need to make things explicit and conduct open conversations. Before you begin, think about ‘what closes people down?’ and ‘What opens people up?’. When you put the relationship before task it enables the environment to re-build trust.

Are you addicted to being right ?
One of the challenges of these expectation gaps is that as we defend our own thoughts/assumptions, we become stressed and more attached than ever to our own ‘truth’, ‘our own ‘reality.

Consequently, when someone else’s ‘reality’ butts up to yours, it often leads to one or both people fighting for dominance.

Both parties ‘fight to be right’, without any real awareness of how their behaviour is making resolution or cooperation more difficult, instead of finding common ground  your need to be right, closes down contributions from others  and makes you look like you’re ‘grandstanding’.

Instead of pushing to be ‘right’, approach the interaction with curiosity, willingness to explore what could emerge that would benefit all.

“The best way to find out if you can trust someone is to trust them.”

6 Tips on how to hold a conversation for clarity and agreement

These are a few ideas you can take in order to set up and hold an intelligent conversation that yields greater clarity and agreement going forward

1. Listen to connect rather than to push your views onto others. Connecting enables you to find out new information, gain new insights while you share and explore together

2. Prepare well Take a clean sheet of paper and divide down middle into two columns. Head one column ‘What I need & expect from you’ and the other ‘What you can expect from me ?’

Twenty minutes spent getting clear will be time well spent.  It will enable you to have a conversation for clarity that sets the working relationship up for success.  E.g. Jon’s list may well be quite different now to the time when he and Alex were peers.

3. Reach out to the other person you wish to ‘manage expectations’ with.  Let them know you want to explore and cooperate on developing a set of shared Rules of Engagement

4. Ask them to prepare [– see 3. above] and let them know you’ll both share findings.

Yes, I know, this may put you, them or both out of your comfort zones; better that that continued distrust, dysfunction and poor performance.

5. Shared goal Through two-way dialogue, listening, understanding, come up with a set of shared ‘rules of engagement’ that you will both work to. This will be your touchstone when things change and it can be renewed at any time. Expect that expectations need tweaking over time – and that’s a good thing. It means that lines of communication remain open and that trust stays in place.

6. Build trust Building trust and clarity at the start of a relationship, project or process forms a great foundation to the working relationship. It means that when things get tough, that solid foundation will pay dividends.

Rebuilding trust and clarity takes effort and time and may well be the difference between retaining or losing the person.

“Never trust your tongue when your heart is bitter” Irish saying
Conversations for clear Expectations can be useful in a range of situation such as…
– at PDR/PDP time
– with new employees or those promoted in role or to a different team
– when misunderstandings and ‘reality gaps’ occur and you want to avoid reoccurrence

– when management or leadership of a project changes

–  when new work, priorities, responsibilities, focus, goals change
–  when you know the value of establishing clear ‘rules of engagement’ between employees, teams etc

Finding the confidence, finding the time, finding the commitment to discuss ‘rules of engagement’ helps both parties manage expectations. It enables misunderstandings, assumptions, expectations and aspirations to be  discussed and negotiated; and this sets the working relationship up for success.


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