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Managing Expectations in 3 Easy Steps

Over the years, I’ve seen my share of conflict between people. Some has been overt—two people arguing during a project, or a couple waiting in line in front of me that clearly had some unresolved issues.

Other times, the conflict was more subtle. For example, a boss and an employee that didn’t see eye to eye, or two employees who disagreed about how to handle an issue in front of a customer.

A classic example of mismatched expectations.

A classic example of mismatched expectations.

But there is a common theme that I identified in the majority of the situations I saw.

There was a mismatch in expectations.

One person expected the other to behave or perform a certain way, and the other person failed to live up to that expectation. Think about the last time you got bad service at a department store. You probably felt that you were treated in an inappropriate way. If the same thing had happened to you at a garage sale, you would not have felt at all slighted. Because you started with a different expectation, the same behavior didn’t matter to you.

So how do you go about managing expectations to prevent conflict?

  1. Know the expectation. Sometimes, just knowing the standard makes a difference. If I am supposed to meet a friend at 7:00, but he tells me there is chance that he will run late if traffic is bad, I might bring a book. I am managing my expectations.
  2. Change the expectation. And if waiting around is not acceptable, I can simply change the expectation. Perhaps I reschedule the date, or push the time back to 7:30. Again, I am managing my expectations.
  3. Deal with the expectation. There are, of course, times when you won’t agree on the expectations, even if they are clear to both sides. While that is never easy, it still gives you a chance to choose. If my friend doesn’t want to reschedule, I can choose to cancel, or I can wait for him if he runs late. Having the choice to pick from two bad options is far better for most people than being surprised.

When there is a case of mismatched expectations at work, though, there is normally a clear hierarchy. Like it or not, the boss gets the final say. The subordinate may not be happy about the choice his manager is making, but both know the nature of the relationship. But just having the expectations out in the open, even if the employee doesn’t agree, at least clarifies the expectation.

For example, he might not agree that 98% quality is a reasonable target, but at least he understands what he is shooting for. Far better to know that number in advance than to be thinking that 95% was good, only to have the boss tell him it wasn’t quite good enough.

This mismatch in expectations has the potential to be very disruptive to continuous improvement projects. The problem can be especially acute, as each situation is new and exciting. This variety requires more filling in the blanks, resulting in more mismatches and a greater need to manage expectations.

I am curious how you go about managing expectations prior to an improvement project like a kaizen. Most teams take the time to communicate changes, but have you seen anything that has worked particularly well? Please let me know in the comments section below.


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