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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

Moving Forward with Expectations

Let’s talk for a minute about expectations.

The dictionary defines expect as things that we look forward to, consider likely or certain, consider reasonable or due, consider obligatory, or presume.

In other words, expectations are things that we desire to have happen in the future.

In the workplace, we have an idea in our heads of what we want another person to do. Generally, this is pretty clear: we have a concrete task or set of tasks we expect the person to perform, producing a specific result. There are also components of the way the person performs the tasks, and the way that the person interacts with others during the performance of the tasks. These are, perhaps, a little more nebulous, but they are relatively logical and obvious.

The challenge is that expectations do no good when they are just thoughts in our heads. They have to be communicated to others – a process that literally puts the entire expectation into another person’s head. And that process of communication must result in a fundamentally similar expectation, or the person is unlikely to perform the tasks in the way we expect.

Expectations are an interchange element, and like all interchanges they have content – the thing being conveyed – and form – the organizational description of how that thing moves between people. Expectations take many forms. The organizational transfer begins in the application process in what the organization is looking for, upon hiring in the form of training and position descriptions, and through the performance management system as formal feedback. These are how leadership transfers expectations. Expectations are also conveyed from other group members through informal rewards and punishments. All of these sources describe aspects of the expectations for an individual member of the group.

When we communicate expectations clearly and completely, with the support of a complete story of vision, then and only then can we create accountability.

“Completely” is where we fail.

There’s a catch here: many expectations are never properly communicated. Remember how I said that expectations are not just the task and output, but also the way a person performs the task and the way that the person interacts with others? These aspects are the ones we as leaders are most likely to leave out. The result is that members determine these aspects of task performance without the intervention of leadership. The distributed, individual expression of the function of vision takes over in the absence of formal, group-focused guidance from leadership. The functional approach reminds us to look for this common state in groups.

So where do members of the group find these expectations when they do not get them from formal leadership structures? In the behaviors of other members, through the learning path of modeling. The ways that members do the work and act towards other members creates positive pressure to continue the same behaviors. These patterns become norms, or a cultural form of expectations. Remember, organizational culture is the sum of relationships.

But expectations are answers to the question, “how do we perform the work”, and in a leadership void, members also find answers in unproductive places: personal desires and goals, whims and immediate feelings, interpersonal struggles with other including power and personal benefits, and general motivation. The result is that, without expectations from leadership, members make decisions that are self-directed rather than group-focused. Outcomes, not surprisingly, suffer in this absence, no matter how good of a person the member might be.

What does this mean? If we like what is going on in the group, we can let the natural process of modeling carry forward, as long as expectations generated by the group are strong and productive. But if we want to change an aspect of the group’s performance because it is not productive, we can use expectations as an interchange element. When we establish roles and responsibilities, we should also establish clear descriptions of how work is to be performed and how members should treat other members. We do this using through a normal functional intervention.

Functional leadership is all about seeing what the group needs, rather than what “leaders do”. From this, we can decide what this specific situation requires and then act to provide it. What sets us apart as leaders is that we seek out and resolve these deficiencies, and thereby improve the group members and their processes.

Want to get better at setting clear expectations? Start with Unsaid Expectations, a SEEING EXERCISE that reveals expectations that the group needs but are not being communicated.

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