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3 Ways Leaders Can Avoid The Disappointment Of Unmet Expectations


Sloppy or unrealistic expectations can sabotage team success. Avoid these three expectation-setting mistakes to set you and your team up to succeed.

As a fourth-grader, I was enamored by the original Charlie’s Angels TV series. I wanted to be like Farah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, and Kate Jackson doing important work on a dynamic team – and looking glamorous in the process.

I was convinced I just needed hairspray to check the glamour box. As my school picture proves, my expectations were way off. It turns out that I needed more than hairspray to get the glamor of Charlie’s Angels hair: I needed the right haircut, a blow-dryer, and a special brush.

People-centric visionaries often unknowingly set teams and themselves up for similar disappointment. They love involving their team to bring big ideas to life and pursue new opportunities. But they can inadvertently sabotage the process. Because, when not set intentionally, unrealistic or overly ambitious expectations can hurt the team.

Are you setting expectations in a way that sets everyone up for disappointment or for success?

Avoid These Common Expectation-Setting Mistakes with Your Team

Don’t Assume It’s An Easy Task

Have you ever said this to a member of your team: “Can you please do X? It should be easy.”?

Like my hairspray assumption, it’s naïve to assume things are easy. When leaders don’t have experience with the thing they’re asking, they don’t know what it will really take to get it done.

When the expectation is that something should be “easy” or “quick”, two things happen: you’re disappointed and your team member feels like they’ve missed the mark.  

Do this instead: Communicate what you want your team to accomplish and ask, “What do you think it will take to get it done?”. Based on their input, agree on the expectation. A joint expectation can be set for accomplishing the goal or when getting an update on what needs to be considered before doing the work.

Don’t Skip Sharing Your Expectations with the People You Expect Things From

Visionaries have so much they want to get done they can unknowingly skip the part where they tell others about it.

A nonprofit executive I worked with once wondered why people didn’t do what he needed them to do. The answer lay primarily in the fact that he wasn’t communicating his expectations to them.

He met with his team to discuss important topics but didn’t articulate what needed to happen next. Unconsciously, he was expecting his team to read his mind, which left him – and his team – frustrated.

Do this instead: Communicate your expectations clearly and out loud or in writing. Write a sticky note to yourself with two questions: “Have I asked this out loud?” “Is it clear to the person I’ve asked?”

For more guidance, read this Inc. article on communicating expectations.

Don’t Confuse the Timeline to Do Work with the Timeline to See Results

It takes a moment to become pregnant, but 9 months for a baby to be born. Yet visionary leaders frequently expect to see their baby after only a couple of weeks.

Do any of these examples sound familiar?

  • A company hires a new superstar but is disappointed with what they have – or haven’t – achieved after a few months on a job. (Studies say it takes 8 months to over a year for an employee to be fully productive.)
  • A marketing department adds pay-per-click advertising to its marketing mix and wants to ax the campaign after 45 days because it isn’t performing. (It takes a minimum of 3 months for PPC ads to work.)
  • A COO decides to roll out a project management tool to manage all client projects and is surprised when he sees a client team still providing internal status reports via email a month later. (Project management adoption often takes several months due to the need to train and roll out the system to the people who will use it every day.)

The truth is that results from projects and initiatives aren’t always immediate.

Do this instead: Form a realistic expectation of when work will be completed vs. when results will be generated and if there are leading indicators you can follow while you wait for the results. Your team or subject matter experts will be more than happy to educate you if you ask them.

Harness the Power of Expectations to Set Your Team – and Yourself – Up for Success

Clear expectations rooted in a vision and respect for the people you’re working with are a powerful driver of team success.

Set everyone up to achieve success in a way you collectively feel great about by becoming savvy about how you’re setting and communicating expectations. Then, as the wise saying goes, “inspect what you expect”.

Book a no-obligation call to chat about using strategies like expectation setting to help your team succeed

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