The importance of aligning expectations.


December 2, 2015 by cbbeard

Disappointment.  Frustration.  Confusion.  Even anger.  It’s that feeling you get as a child when you are hoping for the hottest toy for Christmas and you get tube socks.   It’s the reaction you have when that hyped-up movie you’ve been excited to see turns out to be a snore-fest.   Maybe it’s the emotion of needing to take your new car to the mechanic just 3 days after you bought it.

Expectations.  We all have them.  These are not just our hopes or even our fears of what might be, these are the preconceived notions that define our reality.  They are the lens by which we view our experience, and the standard by which we judge our lives.  That is why unmet expectations are the bane of our existence.  If things don’t go the way we expect them to go, it throws a wrench in the works of our smooth-running lives.

AlignmentThe issues are compounded when interaction with other human beings.  Every
relationship brings two different people with two sets of expectations.  When those expectations don’t align, conflict occurs.  When a parent expects their teenager to be home at 10:00 P.M. and the teenager expects to be able to stay out until midnight, conflict occurs.  When a husband goes all out to celebrate an anniversary, expecting the wife to do the same, and the wife doesn’t think it’s a big deal, conflict occurs.  When you expect your groundskeeper to trim the bushes and he only plans to mow the lawn, conflict occurs.

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the most important job of a leader is to manage, develop and communicate expectations.  Additionally, I think it’s safe to estimate that 9 out of 10 organizational conflicts find their root in mismatched or unmanaged expectations.  Go ahead and think about that…I’ll wait.  Isn’t that the case in your experience?  Have you seen customers upset with a company because they misunderstood what the product or service was?  Have you seen employees upset with supervisors because of an unclear job description?  Have you seen church members upset with the church because church programming or staff wasn’t what they thought they should be?  These and a myriad of other common organizational tensions may have been reduced or eliminated with better expectation management.

Here are three sets of expectations that should be managed and developed by organizational leaders:

Personnel Expectations

“Personnel” here can refer to any interpersonal organizational relationships, be it paid or volunteer.

In regards to paid personnel, it is important to have a clearly delineated document of what is and is not expected (think “Job Description”), including what the employee can expect from the supervisor.  This offers peace of mind to both parties, as clear delineation of expectations reduces the potential for surprises.  The employee knows what to do, the supervisor knows what to expect, and vice versa.  This document can always be revised as necessary, but the clearer it is from the beginning, the better.  It is important to note that sometimes delineating what is NOT expected is just as important as defining what is.

Volunteer personnel expectations are certainly different, but no less important.  The volunteer needs to have a clear understanding what they are being asked to do, what they are responsible for, and who they should consult with and report to (if anyone).  This allows the volunteer to have freedom and confidence to fulfill their role without the feeling the pressure and uncertainty that comes with not knowing “who is in charge” and when the volunteer is in a role of influence, it gives them the freedom to lead.  One side note…in the church one of the most important expectations you can set for volunteers is how long they are committing to serve.  Having a set time frame is superior to an indefinite period because it allows a natural opportunity to opt out or recommit, and it encourages others to volunteer as well.

Programmatic  Expectations

“Programmatic” expectations refers to any overarching goal or activity of an organization.  A leader must do his or her best to ensure that members of the organization are aware of the purpose and goals of the organization, as well as the methodology that will be practiced to fulfill that purpose and reach those goals.  Additionally, the programmatic expectations of the organization as a whole should be clear enough that others who may interact with the organization (i.e., customers, new volunteers, church attenders) can easily ascertain the nature of the organization.  Some specific examples to illustrate:

This past summer I had some work done on my house.  Two different contractors did two different jobs: siding and roofing.  The siding contractor sent an estimate that had only two categories: materials and labor.  The roofing contractor sent an estimate that included a detailed itemized list of everything the crew would do and every category of material needed.  While both contractors did a good job, there were a couple of occasions that I was frustrated with the siding job because of small issues that came up that I did not expect to have to deal with.  The roofing job went off without a hitch because I knew exactly what to expect due to the detailed estimate.   The quality of the jobs was equal, but my satisfaction as a customer was not.

I recently completed a PhD in Leadership Studies, and one of the unique aspects of my experience is that I was part of the first cohort ever in a brand new program.  With a new program comes a unique challenge both to the administration/faculty and the student, as there is a certain element of “learning as you go.”  However, my experience was overwhelmingly enjoyable because other than a few unavoidable exceptions, the nature of the program was clearly defined from the beginning.  I knew what I was getting into and what to expect as well as what was expected of me and each step of my journey including each course and/or requirement clearly reflected the overarching vision of the program as a whole.  I certainly had frustrations, but they weren’t because I was unclear about the program’s design, purpose, or expectations.

One of the requirements of becoming a “member” of the congregation I serve as Lead Minister is attending what we call a “Discover Christ Covenant” class.  During this class we talk about the history and background of our congregation, core beliefs, and how we go about carrying out our purpose of making more and better disciples.  On more than one occasion we have had people who had regularly attend our church gatherings decide to attend the Discover Christ Covenant class who then decided not only to NOT join our congregation as members, but to search for another church home.  This might sound like a bad thing (and certainly we don’t want people to leave our congregation) but it is actually a good thing.  These people discovered something about our congregation, our beliefs, or our vision that did not align with their expectations.  By discussing those freely early in their experience with our church, they were able to see that there was a source of incompatibility which might cause tension in the future.  We avoided that tension by setting clear expectations.

Setting clear programmatic expectation may fall on a single leader or on a group of leaders, but it is an important part of organizational leadership focus.  It helps define to all stakeholders where the organization is going and how it plans to get there.   Another side note…in churches and other organizations where different programs with unique purposes are developed to accomplish organizational goals, it is vital to communicate the purpose and goals of those unique projects as well.

Personal Expectations

The last vital area of expectations that must be managed and developed by organizational leaders is personal expectations.  For a leader to be effective, he or she must have healthy expectations of what they are capable of doing both personally and organizationally.  Those expectations must take into account an honest assessment of the leader’s gifts, abilities, health, and life circumstances as well as an honest assessment of what the organization is capable of.  Even the best leader cannot overcome certain organizational speedbumps, and even the best organization can be hindered by a leader who is overstretched and/or leading from weakness instead of strength.

It’s unlikely that any organization will completely eliminate the problem of misaligned expectations, and the more people involved in an organization, the greater chance there is that expectations will not be met.  But if an organizational leader takes steps to manage, develop, and communicate personnel and programmatic expectations as well as establishing healthy personal expectations, the organization will be much healthier and better off for it.


Comment below: Do you agree that expectations are the biggest source of conflict in an organization?  How have you established common expectations?  What tips do you have for other leaders?

2 thoughts on “The importance of aligning expectations.

  1. Fascination insights very well expressed. I hope you haven’t stopped blogging. Please continue.

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