Do you remember your life BL (Before Leadership)?
I don’t remember much about that time, but I do remember significantly fewer expectations.
Leaders do many, many things. And they are expected to. After all, they are the leader.
I suspect you feel this all the time. Your team wants clarity, and that expectation falls on your shoulders. Your staff needs your decision, and that expectation is a weight only you carry. Somebody in your church emailed you, and you’ve not responded in 10 minutes. It’s Saturday, but you’ve not met their expectation. And you’ll hear all about it tomorrow.
This is not new, so I’ll keep it short.
Nearly all frustration occurs in the gap between experience and expectation. If you are a leader, every person on your team has expectations of you, how leaders should lead, and the organization at large. These expectations, often unsaid, frequently go unmet, creating frustration with you, your leadership, and the organization.
The results are dangerous. Frustrated staff underperform and over-complain. Not initially, but as unmet expectations increase, so do poor attitudes.
So what should we leaders do?
Working with Expectations
One solution would be to ask everyone to forgo their expectations. Good luck. You have them, too, making this not an option.
Another option is to meet every expectation. You could allow every expectation to become your obligation. This is an equally worse idea.
If you lead a team, department, division, or even an organization, try this:
1. Communicate YOUR Expectations
Most people want to meet leadership’s expectations. Unfortunately, in too many cases, employees wonder what their leader expects. They eventually find out the hard way.
I did this in my leadership role at Woodstock City. Word got out that I expected people to be in the office during office hours. I know … what a jerk! The problem was that many of our staff had relational jobs that required they be outside the office during office hours, meeting with volunteers and community leaders.
I never said that being at a desk from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. was expected. I also never said it wasn’t expected. That lack of clarity was the gap that allowed for an assumption to grow (fester).
The solution was simple: I communicated my expectations. And frustrations immediately decreased.
2. Ask Your Team What They Expect
And be prepared for some fun answers!
Some of their expectations will be unrealistic. Most will be helpful. When you unearth what your team expects, you can better close the gap between their experiences with you and their expectations of you.
When you have an open conversation about their expectations, you can clearly explain why you can or can’t meet their expectations. And, when you mess up, you can fess up quickly.
Let me share another example from my bad leadership example bank: When our church was in our greatest growth season, we asked staff and volunteers to park offsite. That included me. I parked offsite every week. Except for one. One week, I was running late and was preaching that morning. It was also pouring rain, and I didn’t have an umbrella. So, I parked on the side of the church, close to a door, to get inside more quickly and stay somewhat dry.
It didn’t take long for the subtle jabs and passive-aggressive comments to ensue. My first reaction was to do some explaining. “Listen, my job is much more complicated. I can’t stand on our stage in front of 4,000 adults today soaking wet. The production team needed me inside 10 minutes ago…” Blah, blah, blah.
All of that was accurate. And irrelevant. My team expected me to do what I asked them to do, and I didn’t. It was only once, but that was enough. Especially when they walked right by my car from the satellite parking lot, soaking wet.
Asking your team what they expect is a simple yet powerful way to open the gates of expectation conversation.
TO BE CLEAR: Your team’s expectations are not your obligations. Opening this conversation should not become Pandora’s box. When an unfair or unrealistic expectation is voiced, take the time to validate their feeling, but don’t leave the conversation without adjusting their expectations to a desire.
3. Acknowledge In Advance When You’ll Fall Short of an Expectation
It’s not possible to know every time you miss the mark. But if you’ve asked your team what they expect, at least you know some of what they are looking for.
When you know your team has an expectation and you will miss that mark, acknowledging before the miss not only resets their expectation but also grows the collective team’s trust.
That’s the power of honesty and transparency. Trust grows when we do what we said we were going to do. Trust also increases when we inform people in advance that we aren’t going to do what we said and apologize in advance.
Bringing us to the last suggestion…
4. Be Quick to Apologize When You Mess Up
When you miss an expectation, be quick to admit and apologize.
Now, like me, you may feel more like explaining than apologizing. That’s what I initially did to the raining Sunday morning complainers. Ironically, that didn’t help.
What did help was me looking them all in the eyes at our next staff meeting and apologizing. I admitted that I failed as a leader in that moment and I won’t do it again.
When you don’t meet a stated or unspoken expectation, the moment you realize you’ve created a gap between what someone expected and experienced, apologize. Don’t explain. Don’t add a “but.” Just apologize.
Leadership By Example
We began by suggesting you share your expectations with your team.
The only guarantee is that people will miss the mark. You will, and your teammates will. How you handle each of these moments helps your team understand how they can and should behave in an expectation to experience gap.
When you ask for forgiveness, they’ll learn to do the same. When you ask for more clarity, they’ll return the favor. And when you inform them in advance of a potential expectation gap, your team will begin to follow suit.