Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Power Of Expectations

I am constantly reminded about the power of setting expectations. As we work together inside and outside of organizations, and as we get to know each other, we think we understand what is expected of us, and that we are clear with others what we expect of them.

I believe that is actually rarely true. Clarity around expectations is critical but not frequent.

For example, recently I was observing a conversation with a small group of clients who were meeting together to kick off a new project. One of the most talented leaders (let's call her Helen) talked about her expectations of others. She said there were 3 levels of expectations in her mind.

Immediately, her colleague, (let's call him Bob), another well respected leader, agreed. They both smiled and nodded as they acknowledge what they believed were their common thoughts about the 3 levels of expectations they held. Ahhh, alignment.

Or at least the assumption of alignment, which held until Bob began to discuss what he obviously thought they both agreed to: "Yes, three levels: a) not meeting needs b) satisfactorily meeting needs c) super pleasing-- above and beyond meeting needs."

The attitude in the room began to shift.

Helen's relaxed body language changed as she realized that somehow she had not been heard or understood. She became uncomfortable. That led to the group feeling uncomfortable without yet understanding why. Helen stopped the conversation, tipped her head and said "No, I'm not sure you heard me. As we both agreed to, there are three levels of expectations: a) satisfactorily meeting the needs b) above and beyond c) way above and beyond--integrating new pieces even the client would not have thought of. There is no expectations of not meeting needs. And there is an expectation of going above and beyond what people think is above and beyond."

A third colleague, Greg, was standing near by listening in, joined the conversation with, "No really, I think both of your expectations are a bit high." As Greg listed his expectations, the other two began to look aghast. And the sudden realization hit them that they did not share common expectations but held each other to standards no one agreed to. There was no alignment. They had worked together for a long time, and assumed they understood and agreed to expectations held.

This could have been a recipe for disaster. Instead it was an opportunity for honest dialogue and communication. As we all began to talk about the assumptions we make that we are not aware of, the colleagues realized there may be many places they assume alignment but only because they do not check their assumptions. When experiences and values differ, even by a few degrees, that creates a set of beliefs and expectations in each of us that we need to illuminate as we deal with others.

Aligning expectations can seem like it takes time, like it is yet one more way of holding hands and singing folks songs. In truth, aligned expectations can save vast amounts of time and money as resources can be quickly targeted toward agreed to goals, employees are working toward the same objectives with clarity and confidence. Trust is built. People understand clearly what is expected of them and are able to work towards those expectations without mayhem.

What a powerful tool, expectations. What we expect of ourselves, what we expect of others, and what we believe they can expect from us. There are few tools more useful or more impactful in business and yet completely overlooked. Targeted, focused effort toward communication and collaboration around expectations pays back over and over again.

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