Yesterday, as I shared coffee with a friend, we shared stories about how hard it is to find organizations and partners who at least live up to our expectations and how rare it seems to have become to find one that exceeds them. We’ve both had challenges recently where we’ve hired someone who claims expertise to help us with something that is far outside our areas of expertise only to be let down in significant ways.
After about 20 minutes of story sharing, she asked me this question: “Are our expectations just too high?”
That seeming innocent question is really what’s at the root of so many of the problems we face today in our workplaces and in our lives. No, your expectations aren’t too high. Expectations are what guide our interactions with the world and with other people. And possessing high expectations with conviction is a gift that was likely given to you along the way by a parent, teacher or other role model. You should protect them fervently.
So, where’s the problem? I have had a lot of conversations like this one over the years. It seems that by having high expectations, your journey through life can be pretty frustrating at times because so many will fail to live to those high expectations. And, there are many who will happily advise that life would be so much easier if only you’d lower those lofty expectations to be more “realistic.” No way, not on my watch.
So, if it’s not wrong to have high expectations, then what gives? Here’s what I think is going on and what I think we need to do about it.
1. We don’t articulate our expectations clearly. I have two tenants central to my management philosophy. First, set crystal clear expectations. Second, get out of the way. Without exception, people will fail to live up to your expectations if you do not clearly articulate these expectations to them up front. This is true for spouse, kids, friends, co-workers, bosses, service providers and anyone else who you interact with. Granted, when you are paying someone for service, it’s not unreasonable to expect them to ask you questions to help understand and set your expectations, but I’ve found it’s much more reliable to take on this responsibility yourself. Example: I expect you to be clear on your expectations.
2. We aren’t good at holding people accountable to your expectations. This is what I wrote about yesterday. For whatever reason, we’ve gotten squimish about holding other people accountable for doing what they are expected to do. When we communicate clear expectations, then it’s not only reasonable, but expected of you that there will be accountability for meeting these expectations. This means that some times you have to have some pretty fierce conversations with people. And by fierce, I don’t mean disrespectful, but rather honest, candid discussion about where expectations aren’t being met and how to make it right. Here’s the dirty secret about accountability. If expectations are clear, there are no surprises. People know when they aren’t meeting expectations. And a majority of the time, it creates more tension and negativity when you don’t address the gap than if you do. When you have the fierce conversation, you are taking action to ensure a more satisfactory outcome. Both parties to the conversation win. And don’t forget, accountability also means celebrating and rewarding those who do exceed your expectations. When you find someone who does great by your and exceeds your expectations, find ways to reward them.
3. Due to the first two points, I think that service quality has deteriorated dramatically on the average and it needs to change. There are too many organizations and professionals that are getting by on doing average work at average quality because they aren’t being held accountable to a higher standard. It pains me. And, this has been a great reminder to me as someone starting a new company in the services business, that I have to work really hard to hold myself to very high standard because it won’t always be the case that my customers will. It should also be a good reminder to anyone in a position to provide service whether it be in a corporate environment, retail business, as a leader or at home. I don’t know about you, but I am committed to be one of the examples of people who exceed my customer’s expectations.
So, at the end of the day, it’s not our high expectations that are the problem. It’s what we do with those high expectations that really makes the difference. Life is too short and business moves too fast to have low expectations. If you are going to be exceptional, you have to expect exceptional things from yourself and others. Share those expectations with others and invite them to live up to them. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what happens.