The Power of Managing Expectations for Business Leadership

Aug 22, 2023, Written by Jim Miley

Expectations are ever-present, everywhere, and in everyone. 

We have expectations of our staff, our staff has expectations of us, our customers have high expectations and we have expectations of our customers.

Yet, not a week, maybe not a day, goes by that I’m not in deep conversation with someone over misaligned expectations. It’s the very nature of our business coaching practice that these conversations arise so it keeps the importance of managing expectations front and center all the time.  

The Cost of Disappointment

It’s easy to grasp the costs of disappointment as we’ve all experienced it. Employees whose expectations are not being met will tend to demonstrate performance setbacks and poor attitudes. Managers with employees not meeting expectations will tend to be anxious and harsh with their language. Disappointed customers will fire you and go to your competitors for service.  

Expectations that are consistently not met in any area of your business result in real costs.

  • Poor employee performance
  • Turnover
  • Negative impact on culture and employee engagement
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Lost business

The Root Cause of Disappointment

It’s likely you have experienced enough disappointment in both business and life overall that you feel like a bit of an expert. But it’s not easy to recognize the root cause of disappointment when you’re caught in the whirlwind of day-to-day business demands upon your time and focus.  

A big contributing factor to disappointment is unmet expectations. But where do the expectations come from? Why did we expect a given outcome to begin with?  

As we go about our busy days, it’s common to miss the expectations piling up around us; some are our own expectations and some are the expectations we’re giving to others. You probably recognize the feelings, “I don’t have time for this right now” or “That’s never gonna happen.” These are warning signs that expectations are about to fall out of alignment.  

We communicate expectations, commitments, and personal feelings to our peers all the time. Often not in a good way. While we may not intend to send incorrect signals, the message is still delivered.  

The root cause of disappointment is most often mismanaged expectations. 

Someone allowed an expectation to arise that was never going to be met but by some miraculous intervention. Why do we do that?  

Examples of mismanaged expectations are everywhere.

  • Over committing on time schedules
  • Accepting work projects we know are unlikely to meet expectations
  • Assigning or delegating work projects we know are unlikely to meet expectations
  • Repeating work that has failed to meet expectations without making changes
  • Failing to address the concerns of people responsible for meeting expectations

Tips for Managing Expectations 

Given that we rarely if ever intentionally create misaligned expectations, we need to recognize that we do either cause it or let it occur in spite of our best intentions. The first step is to acknowledge that we have the opportunity to improve our management of expectations. If you don’t, good for you and I’m surprised you read this far.  

The following are practical steps anyone can incorporate into their daily routines to improve the management of expectations.

Apply the S M A R T approach to establishing expectations

Expectations are typically associated with some objective that is either met or not met to a person’s satisfaction; therefore, the S M A R T approach to objective setting works wonders with aligning expectations.  

S specific
M measurable
A achievable
R realistic
T ime bound (due date) 

The most common cause of misaligned expectations is that we simply don’t have good discipline with regard to agreeing upon what is expected by both parties.  

Practice reflective listening skills 

It is critical that we limit the occurrence of simple misunderstandings when sharing expectations. Be sure to allow both parties to repeat the deliverable(s) and confirm understanding by repeating what you heard.  

In technical industries where consequences from mistakes are severe, they often practice “3-Part Communication” as a way to eliminate misunderstandings. 3-Part Communication takes reflective listening a whole step further by requiring 3 exchanges for every set of instructions. The message originator gives the instruction (part 1), the receiver repeats the instructions back to the originator (part 2), and the originator acknowledges the reply and confirms the message was correct and understood (part 3). 

Insisting on 3-Part Communication for most of us may be a little overkill but you get the idea. Be sure both parties understand what is being discussed and what the expectations are.

Establish a rhythm of accountability and follow-up

Obstacles and challenges are part of life that we often can’t control. But we can adapt and overcome. 

When establishing objectives or agreeing to expectations, include expectations for follow-up. How often or what date will we check on progress to assure we are on track to reach our objectives? Said another way, when do we meet to hold one another accountable for making any adjustments required to assure we meet our mutual expectations?  

Be open and honest with feedback and humble when receiving it

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  

Often misaligned expectations result from our desire to not hurt someone’s feelings. It is critical to be open and honest with our team members on whether expectations are being met. It is common for me to listen to a business leader express disappointment when they have not taken the hard step of talking through the issue with the other party. There are a lot of reasons we are all guilty of this at one time or another. The point is to recognize it and find a constructive way to share feedback.  

This sword cuts both ways. We must be willing and able to humble ourselves in receiving feedback where we have not met expectations. If you are not approachable and open to constructive feedback, you will undermine your team’s reception of your feedback.  

The power of managing expectations in business leadership is the inverse of the costs listed above. When you practice the disciplines to manage expectations well, you reap the rewards that will fuel healthy business growth.

Expectations consistently met within your business will produce tangible benefits.

  • Improved employee performance
  • Reduced turnover
  • A positive impact on culture and employee engagement
  • Reduced stress and anxiety
  • Loyal customers and increased business

You, your staff, and your customers want to meet or exceed expectations and have their expectations met or exceeded. Put some focus on managing expectations so everyone enjoys the benefits.

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Jim Miley

As a Business Coach, Jim brings a broad background of operational and sales management skills and expertise to help small business owners grow their business and reach their highest potential. He has 30 years of field-proven professional experience.

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