In 1999, I saw the Blair Witch Project. It blew my mind. I thought it was brilliant.
Going into the theater that night, I knew next to nothing about the movie. I had seen a couple of short television commercials for it, but that was it. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting into.
I also saw another movie in 1999–Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. I grew up on Star Wars. To say I was excited to see this movie after a fifteen-year waiting period was understanding it.
Afterward, my friends and I went to the bar to drink. Not to celebrate but to vent and drown our disappointment. We talked about the many ways we’d like to kill Jar Jar Binks.
As I reflect on my experience of the two movies, the major difference between the two was my expectations.
There are probably many of you who saw Blair Witch and hated it. Because I expected very little of the movie, I was blown away by the creativity and execution of the concept.
In contrast was Star Wars. I had incredibly high expectations for it. So high, in fact, that perhaps I was destined to be let down regardless of how good it might have been (it wasn’t good, btw).
The moral of the story: expectations play a HUGE role in our experience of anything.
This is one of the most overlooked components of employee engagement. Our satisfaction with our experience at work has everything to do with our individual expectations.
For example, let’s say two employees work on the same team with the same supervisor. She is a nice, decent person who doesn’t demean or belittle her employees. She communicates what she’s told to communicate to the team, but not much beyond that. She dutifully provides performance feedback once per year according to the company process.
Employee number one had a previous supervisor who was borderline abusive. The only communication he received was about what he was doing wrong and mistakes he had made.
Employee number two had a previous supervisor who really cared for and invested in people. This supervisor demonstrated transparency in communication and provided positive ongoing coaching to each employee.
How do you think these two employees would rate their experience of their current supervisor? How would they rate the communication? It’s likely that these two people would provide very different assessments of this supervisor. Same experience, same supervisor but very different sets of expectations based on past experience.
We bring expectations to every experience we have. The challenge for leaders to understand and manage these expectations.
One of the most powerful things we can do to help employees have a more engaging experience at work is to create clarity about what they can and should expect at work and what is expected of them.
I first learned this lesson from my longtime friend and mentor, Cy Wakeman. She described a conversation she used as a manager with new people. Here’s how my adapted version of the conversation sounds.
My goal is to be the best manager I can be for you but I can’t do that without your help. I need to understand what is most important to you. My commitment will be to do my best to deliver on those things for you. I am depending on you to ensure that I know what those things are as I am not a mind reader.
But, I won’t be perfect and I will let you down from time to time. I will say the wrong the thing or miss a deadline from time to time. When I do, I need you let me know so I can make it right. I am committed to continuous improvement but that will depend upon getting feedback when I need it.
I expect you to ensure that you have the information and guidance you need from me. When we meet to discuss anything, my expectation when we leave the conversation is that you are crystal clear on what’s next and what is expected. If not, then you keep asking more questions until you are clear.
Let’s start by talking about your expectations of me.
There are two important things to notice about this conversation. First, it recognizes and invites the employee to make their expectations known so they can be discussed and calibrated. Second, it creates a shared accountability with the employee for ensuring that these expectations are met.
This is one example of how to manage expectations at the manager-employee relationship level. At the organization and team level, the goal is to create a broader set of expectations about what it means to work at the organization. To create clarity of expectations at this level, start with:
- Stated values and standards of behavior
- Written goals, objectives, and performance standards
- Clear and understandable documentation of rules and policies
- Agreements for how decisions are made and conflict is handled
The bottom line for leaders is that it’s much easier to manage successfully to a single set of expectations than to 50 or 1,000 or 10,000 when each employee gets to set their own. This is critical because creating an engaging workplace depends on meeting and exceeding employee expectations consistently.