5 min read

Great Expectations

Great Expectations
Dickens was a dour looking fellow, but he sure did know how to write

Expectations are great. In more ways than one.

When set appropriately, they allow you to orient yourself in a particular direction, which can help to focus your limited efforts and achieve specific outcomes. They are a lot like goals in that respect.

But they are also dangerous, because not meeting an expectation that you set for yourself can be very disappointing and demotivating, which can then affect your desire to keep going.

You need to treat them with care.

Especially when you start setting them for other people.

Ask No Questions

As a manager, you need to set expectations for the people that you're responsible for.

It's similar to setting expectations for yourself, in that you want to provide guidance on where they should focus their limited energy. To accomplish the things that you deem to be most valuable and necessary.

But it's more than that, because the expectations that you set form a key part of how the person will be measured and evaluated. How you will decide whether or not they were a success or a failure or somewhere in between.

The results of those evaluations have long-ranging impacts too, like what opportunities you engineer for the person in the future or whether or not they are eligible for a salary increase or bonus when it comes time to do performance reviews.

Ensuring that both parties have a clear understanding from the start about what the expectations are is key to this whole process.

It's a good thing that setting expectations is so easy.

And You'll Be Told No Lies

It's not. That was sarcasm. It's just one of the many services that I provide. I even have it written on a shirt.

Setting expectations is hard.

In some ways it's similar to identifying and agreeing on the requirements for a piece of work.

But that means that same lessons apply.

Don't be too specific or solution focused. Set a general direction or identify an overarching problem and then be flexible in how the person moves towards that goal. The expectation being that they focus their efforts in an area or towards an end, not that they do a specific set of things.

That flexibility comes with a cost though, because you risk losing sight of that initial target if you constantly mutate things over time. It can be a very slippery slope, and before you know it a nice high-level expectation like "be more independent when executing projects" becomes something much simpler and mundane, disconnected from the original improvement that you wanted to see.

In fairness, maybe that mutation is the right thing for the person in question. Maybe the expectation on them needs to be lower for some reason, because they aren't quite ready to reach for the stars that you've charted.

Or maybe you're just not pushing them hard enough.

Too Cowardly To Do What I Knew To Be Right

Personally, I find it hard to hold people accountable to expectations, though I am getting better at it.

Some part of it is conflict avoidance, which appears to be well ingrained in my personality for some reason. It's a trait that I need to work on, especially if I want to be an effective manager.

The other part is that I want to be fair. Reality is a harsh mistress, and no plan survives contact with the enemy. It doesn't feel right to rate someone poorly because they didn't manage to meet expectations in the face of that. I know that I wouldn't like to be treated that way, so why would do it to other people?

The problem is that it's exceedingly difficult to tell the difference between someone not meeting expectations because of environmental factors or because they need to improve.

If you set the expectation that someone leads the delivery of a project and brings it to completion within a certain timeframe and then it doesn't happen, you need to work to understand why and then make a judgement call about whether or not the person did everything that they could.

Sometimes you'll get it wrong, and you'll call someone on a perceived lack of effort when in reality they tried incredibly hard and just didn't get to where they wanted. Or they got to exactly where they needed to be and you just didn't notice.

When that happens, the knock-on effects can be disastrous, like low morale and disengagement.

Of course, there is also the flipside, where you heap glowing praise on someone for meeting or surpassing an expectation and they barely even tried. That doesn't feel good either.

But holding people accountable to a specific set of expectations isn't the only challenge that you need to take into account.

Think For A Moment On The Binding Chain

Over time, the expectations that you set for someone will change. Not in the sense that they will mutate within some boundary, I mean that each time you set expectations you'll be setting them with the context of all of the expectations set previously.

If a person is constantly meeting or exceeding the expectations, then naturally you're going to start expecting more.

If they are constantly not meeting expectations, then you'll probably start expecting less. Or maybe not. You might actually start expecting more in order to push them harder and bring them up to an appropriate level of performance.

Neither situation seems sustainable to me. Never-ending escalation is something that I struggle with at the best of times and the last thing I want to do is push that evil onto the people that I'm responsible for. Meanwhile, expectations that are too low as a result of previous poor performance aren't helpful either, because they risk sending the wrong signal (that lower performance is acceptable).

It's yet another example of finding the sweet spot in a complicated and hard to navigate situation.

I don't have a good handle on it yet, but if I figure it out, I'll be sure to come back here and share my findings.

Don't hold your breath though.

Suffering Is The Strongest Teacher

I find the process of expectation setting and subsequent evaluation against those expectations very fuzzy, and that makes me uncomfortable.

I like to be able to back up my position with facts and data, and while I try to apply that sort of approach to expectations, I don't often succeed.

I think it's even more challenging when you're responsible for knowledge workers, because it's often difficult to reason about the value that they are providing in the first place. Trying to anticipate and estimate an already vague and hard to measure thing just adds another layer of complexity.

Really though, I think a lot of my own discomfort springs from not wanting to make people's lives worse by telling them they aren't meeting expectations. I know that sort of feedback can be great for personal growth, but if someone is already struggling such that they aren't meeting expectations, piling more crap on top of that just feels like a dick move.

But it's probably for the greater good and that is inherent to what it is to being a manager.

Sometimes you have to be the bad guy.