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Keeping Those Great Expectations in Check

Bob Little 

April 7, 2017

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Team GB won two medals on the same day – a silver in the 80kg Taekwondo and a bronze in the women’s 4x100m relay. You’d think that the silver medal winner would be happier than the runners, but he sobbed that “this is the lowest moment of my life.”

It was all to do with expectations.

Taekwondo silver medalist Lutalo Muhammad had a reasonable hope of a gold medal until the dying seconds of his contest. The women had to break their own personal best to achieve the first British medal in that event since 1984. No wonder they were so pleased.

What About Expectations at Work?

Before someone is taken into a company, his or her boss (let’s call her “Pat”) will have positive expectations about what that individual (“Terry”) will contribute and achieve.

Initially, these expectations will be made clear to Terry. Slowly, he gains an understanding of his ‘net worth’ to the organization. These impressions can stay in place for some time, reinforced by broadly positive reviews through the performance appraisal process.

As the boss, Pat has a stake in Terry being seen in a positive light. After all, Terry is Pat’s new hire, and we all want to be seen as a picker of winners.

Pat may even go out of her way to advance Terry within the organization. He will feel that he’s broadly fulfilling the positive expectations, and everything in the garden appears rosy.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

But always remember that change can come in many forms. For example, Terry’s manager may move on, and the replacement will not have the same vested interests in him as Pat did.

So, let’s say that Pat has gone, and no longer exerts direct influence on Terry’s situation. Terry, previously a good performer, finds that the dynamics and success metrics of the working environment are now different.

Maybe the new boss (“Lee”) isn’t impressed by how the department works. He sees an opportunity to reform everything with energy and zeal, and spends time communicating upward about the poor state of things.

Lee may find Terry’s standards falling below what he expects. Lee may, in fact, have come from an environment where far tougher demands were placed on others, and he’s finding it hard to adapt.

Forensic Examination of the Role

Impatient for improvement, Lee’s style may be one of initial, grudging acceptance of previously-regarded high standards of work, and nitpicking criticism of minor errors.

Worse (in my experience) is when the new boss has specialized in the same area that the previous new hire works.

This gives the new boss a forensic understanding of the role, and the chance to meticulously examine and dissect every move. If he’s prone to fault-finding, he’ll have a great time.

To add to the dismay, Terry may experience other freshly imposed restrictions (over freedom to self-direct or choice of priorities, for example).

This whole situation may be capped by a difficult discussion between Lee and Terry. In this conversation, Lee says that others in the organization may be impressed by Terry’s contributions but that he hasn’t seen evidence of this.

Lee may come away from the conversation feeling that “the record has been put straight” and “realistic expectations have been set.”

Terry, however, may be feeling bruised and resentful that all his previous efforts and contributions are unrecognized. The outlook for the relationship is bleak – unless one of the parties (usually the subordinate, Terry) is prepared to spend energy rebuilding the relationship.

Quality Feedback Needed From the Start

This scenario, or similar, is played out time and again in organizations. It leads to acrimony, distrust, game-playing, and activities that don’t contribute to a functional or organizational output. How can we help the real Pats, Terrys and Lees out there to improve?

In Pat’s case, there’s a need to give Terry quality feedback from the start. Feedback early in a new role is particularly effective, so don’t wait for three months or for the annual appraisal.

It may be broadly positive but Pat must include critical feedback or Terry will never have the chance to improve. So along with the usual “what’s gone well,” Pat must include “what didn’t go so well” and “what could be done better.” The feedback must be factual and evidenced. Hearsay needs to be checked and processed.

Terry needs to seek feedback by asking questions such as, “So, what went well?” or, “What didn’t go so well?” By listening and processing, he can choose to turn this information into modified behavior.

What about Lee? Well, Lee may be on a mission to improve and reform, but he needs to be sensitive to previous performance discussions.

Lee is introducing a process of change and needs to help others change – using any one of the many models available (including the writings of Lewin, Kotter and Covey) to guide others through what may be a difficult transition period.

This article was written by Bob Little in collaboration with Roger Mayo, director at MT&D Learning Solutions.

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