The Expectations Gap

After being a supervisor for a few years, I began to learn what leading was really about.  My first couple of jobs with supervisor responsibilities came with no formal training, I just used what I knew and observed, and gained as I went along.  Later on, I had the good luck to get involved in a leader development program and it opened my eyes to what leadership was really about.  One of the best leadership concepts I learned was in developing and managing expectations. We all have expectations, it is a natural human notion, and others have expectations of us as well.  Organizations are not people (despite the Supreme Court), but they have expectations, normally policies and procedures for employees.

Wouldn’t it be nice if expectations between employee and employer were always in sync?  As a leader in an organization, I spend a lot of time with expectations, and when there is misalignment, which unfortunately does happen, I work to close that gap and reset expectations if needed.  Helping employees to understand expectations, and understanding theirs, is what communication is all about.

Some expectations are pretty clear.  Show up at the start time, ready to work.  Do not use the organization’s internet for gambling.  Many of our work policies are outlined in the Employee Handbook, readily available to every employee.  And in return, employees have an expectation to be paid their salary every two weeks, minus the usual taxes and deductions.  Employees also expect to work in a safe environment free from harassment.

Employees also expect to have competent leadership, the tools and resources to do their jobs, and perhaps most importantly, respect.  This might seem to be obvious, but many employee complaints are filed over issues not addressed by supervisors/managers, or problems management did not even realize. Awareness is key, and it starts with communication and paying attention.

Employees want and need open communication with their supervisor.  This is often the number one complaint I hear from employees: management does not tell us anything.  As managers, we say a lot of things, but we do not invest enough time communicating the right information, and making sure employees understand?  At times, employees are not sure what they want to know.  The “you don’t communicate with us” card is used to the point it that managers tune it out.  Management, in their desire to be communicators, often pushes out information that raises more questions than it answers, is conflicting, and often misses the mark.  We fail to correctly anticipate what employees need to know and then get caught doing damage control.  No wonder employees gossip or run with partial or incorrect information.  To be fair, communication works both ways.  As an employee, I have an obligation to help my supervisor understand my need for information, to ask questions, and give them the benefit of the doubt.  It is not my job to run the organization, so questioning decisions or getting into business that is above my pay grade or another employee-supervisor relationship is inappropriate.  News travels fast, if a fellow supervisor has pushed out information to their employees and I have failed to do so with mine, I’m going to hear about it. Employees and management tend to talk past each other.

There are times that the gap between people is philosophical or a matter of values.  Communication will likely not close that gap, and that’s the reality of having differences of opinion or belief.  Communication can still help those individuals to better understand each other and work with the differences.  I may never be able to please someone because what they expect is greater than or far outside what I can comfortably or reasonably provide them.  We may have to agree to disagree, but at least I am aware of the situation and include that in my interaction with the person.  We may not agree, but I will still respect that person and their views.

What do you do when the expectation gap is too large and impacts the relationship between you and that person, or the organization and that person?  If that gap is too large between you and someone else and if that relationship is important, you have to find a way around the gap.  In the work place, there is an expectation for professionalism and respect.  You do not have to be friends, but you have to be colleagues.  Despite the gap, you must enable work to continue, and not in a hostile manner.  If the gap is between that person and the organization, for reasons like: they don’t treat me right or I am not paid enough for my work.  Sooner or later that person will leave, or the bitterness will result in failed performance or violation of company rules. The employee is not happy and they spread that cloud of discontentment throughout the workplace.  Eventually, the gap becomes so large and inaccessible that it is not survivable.

The work world is composed of not only people, with their personalities and needs, but of rules and applicable laws.  Policy handbooks and meetings to discuss the legal aspects of the work environment help to define expectations and parameters, but the most critical factor is still the relationship.  Organizations spend a lot of time and money to hire the best qualified fit for the organization, train and develop leaders, and yet there can still be workplace issues.  The hardest, but most important work, is the daily work that leaders do with employees.  It is time, direct communication and not being afraid to tackle small disconnects early on that provides the best result.  Again, it is about relationships.

People are still the backbone of most organizations, and they can be the biggest challenge for any organization. Effective leadership does not have to be hard, but it does require hard work. Setting expectations begin during recruitment and continue throughout an individual’s employment.  Revisit expectations along the way, you can do it formally as part of periodic performance meetings, and informally through check-ins which are employee-driven conversations.  Employees deserve to know what is expected from them and shouldn’t guess about what they get in return. Employees aren’t gardens, but if you want the harvest, you better be an attentive farmer. Work to prevent gaps and recognize them early if do form.


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