Did you know that one of the biggest reasons people are unhappy in any given situation is their unmet expectations? How do our expectations contribute to our emotional responses? Our expectations are based on our values—what is most important to us. When it comes to our expectations, we project what is important to us onto others. We simply expect others to act as we would. For example, suppose that I am a manager and I ask my team to attend an 8:30 a.m. strategy meeting to which everyone agrees. The next morning, when people don’t show up until 8:45 or even 9:00 a.m., I might become frustrated or even angry that people didn’t take their commitment seriously. My emotional reaction occurs because of the value that I possess for keeping commitments. Because everyone agreed to attend the 8:30 meeting, I expected my team members to honor that commitment. When that didn’t occur, my emotional response would indicate that one of my values has been violated.
The challenge that we all experience is in gaining an understanding of the violated values that trigger our emotional response. Part of the difficulty is that emotional reactions happen quickly before we have taken the time to clarify our expectations and to insure that we have clearly communicated our expectations to others. The failure to personally understand our own expectations and understand whether others completely comprehend and respect those same values can easily result in our negative emotional reaction.
Over the years, I have noticed that many leaders and managers have allowed the lack of clear communication of their expectations to sabotage their results and their resulting emotional reactions negatively impact their professional relationships. Here are a few common expectations in a working environment that often go unidentified or miscommunicated which may lead to volatile emotional reactions.
1. The expectation that you have been understood. Just because we communicate important information, make a request, or provide directives doesn’t mean that others on the receiving end have clearly understood the message. In fact, there is a strong likelihood that our message will be misinterpreted. This may occur because the speaker was vague or because the listening party has a different set of mental models or perceptual filters that result in a varied interpretation of the message. Additionally, the more people that hear the message, the greater the diversity of interpretation.
2. The expectation that people know what you want. If you don’t clearly and precisely indicate exactly what you want or what the outcome should be, don’t expect people to read your mind. They can’t read your mind and you won’t get what you want. When this happens, you need to examine the clarity of your message and explore how the disconnect occurred. Did you make assumptions beforehand about what people “should” already know? Did you allow time for them to ask clarifying questions? These are a few areas that could often use more attention to ensure clear communication.
3. The expectation that people will perform the way that you would perform. It is not uncommon for people to perform according to their expectations rather than yours, especially if your expectations were unclear or they felt the bar was set too high. They also might believe that their way of doing things is more efficient, but may deliver different results than what you expected. They may also have a differing work ethic or lack of dedication to complete a certain task. Give these potential issues some thought and let them influence the guidelines and parameters you identify as to how a task is to be completed.
4. The expectation that people should know what to expect from you. If you haven’t taken the time to ask people what they expect of you as their leader, then you can’t expect that your behavior will meet their expectations. If you ask them what they expect from you, some may not be able to answer immediately. If that is the case, then give them some time to identify for themselves what is important to them and ask them to share those expectations. Clarifying their expectations will allow you to give people what they need to be successful.
5. The expectation that those who are disengaged will be responsible for their disengagement. Much of the current literature on employee engagement focuses on what the manager and company should provide to create an engaged workforce. However, establishing the type of working relationships which allow for leader and employee to have an open exchange of ideas about engagement is just as critical. Employees should be responsible to assess their level of engagement and then discuss that with their manager. If both parties can accept responsibility for the level of engagement, then progress toward a mutual purpose can be established that will deliver both individual and organizational success.
6. The expectation that you won’t violate someone’s expectations. Whether it be in your personal or professional relationships, if you haven’t taken the time to identify expectations, you can count on violating others’ expectations even if you didn’t intend to do so. When emotions begin to flare, both yours and others, it’s time to stop and explore expectations, apologize for your part in the misunderstanding, and be clear about what will change or you will do differently in the future.
7. The expectation that people will tell you what’s going well and what’s not. We often have a tendency to operate from the paradigm that no news is good news. If you expect that people will tell you when they are frustrated with some aspect of their job, then prepare to be disappointed. Leaders need to check in with their people and explore what is working and not working. You also need to offer support and assistance to those that may be struggling which necessitates that you know when people are struggling. Don’t wait until you don’t get the results you want to identify bottlenecks in your processes or employee skills and abilities.
8. The expectation that people know how what they do contributes to the organization’s success. A study conducted a number of years ago by Kaplan and Norton, two Harvard professors, identified that 95% of the people in organizations didn’t know how what they did supported the organization’s strategy for success. A more recent study by Peterson and Gillespie identified that 72% of individuals within an organization still didn’t know how what they did contributed to organizational success. We are getting better, but this reinforces the importance of having a clear vision and expectations. Individuals want a sense of purpose and direction in the work they are doing and they want to know how their efforts contribute to the success of the company.
9. The expectation that priorities are understood by everyone. When people have a lot of responsibilities, it is important to hold an ongoing conversation about their priorities and how they are managing them. You also need to clearly identify your own priorities, especially if what people do contributes to the completion of your priorities. This can be a real challenge because priorities often change. Staying on top of current priorities will insure that goals are met and projects are completed on time.
10. The expectation that people will give you personal feedback. If you haven’t asked your people or teammates for feedback, then you know that people generally don’t volunteer or take the initiative to give feedback, especially if they feel that their candor may not be appreciated. If you really want to know what you can do to improve, you will need to actively and sincerely seek feedback from those who are in a position to give you a more complete view of your performance and your qualities as a leader. You may be surprised by what you hear, but you will learn something that will help you to grow and improve.
11. The expectation that you know what people need. Even if you think you may know, it is important to ask what people might need in terms of resources, time, support, or assistance that will help them to succeed. Sometimes we get so busy that we don’t take the time to check in with people about what might help them to be more effective and successful.
12. The expectation that people who are driving slower in the fast lane will move over. When I was trying to identify expectations, I took the opportunity to ask a few people which of their expectations were violated most frequently. This expectation was identified a number of times. This expectation is really about respect. People do expect to be treated with respect whether they are on the freeway or in the work place. When people are treated with disrespect, performance, morale, culture, engagement, and many other factors are negatively impacted. People rightly deserve and expect to be treated with respect and dignity.
Everyone has expectations. Often we fail to clearly identify our expectations for ourselves. When our expectations are violated, we tend to react emotionally without really understanding why, then we may say and do things that we will regret. Part of becoming more emotionally intelligent and a more effective leader is about identifying our expectations and clearly sharing them with others. Doing so will not only eliminate unneeded and potentially damaging emotional reactions, but will also greatly improve your results.
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