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Be The Best You: Set Expectations or Get Rolled!

One of the biggest pitfalls, no offense to one of my favorite Atari games, is not explaining the whole picture. Not explaining properly expectations can be the difference between winning and losing. If you only look at the best case scenario you will not be in business or relationships very long. Managing the results is not the only thing one must do as a leader, you must also manage expectations. Doing so is like preparing for a debate. If your debating someone, let’s say for President of the United States, do you only prepare for your responses to questions? No, you also anticipate your opponent’s responses so that you may counter their arguments. You try to get the whole picture. The same thing applies to tasks/projects.

I have managed projects in the past which rely on cable providers to implement their service at sites. I know that this whole process can take up to three months at site that currently do not have service. So in my talking points is always the caveat that it can take as long as three months to get service implemented. I set the teams expectations for when cable will be available. Could it be sooner? Sure. But if I mislead the team into a shorter time frame and it ends up being longer, then my word starts to hold less weight. Whereas if I anticipate something, set the team up positively for the expectation, then my word begins to hold more weight.

Expectations play a key role in trust and leadership. This is not to say that you will not work to beat that expectations, but you are communicating what I call the long expectation. Long expectations are basically the worst case. It is like auto racing, when you have to set expectations for fuel mileage. There is usually a few lap mileage window. They are not 100% certain they can get say 31 laps on a tank of gas, but they think worst case they can get 29 laps. So they set expectations that during the race they can get 29 laps without running out of gas. They might push it during the end of the race and try for 30 or 31 laps, but they know they could lose it all and come in last if they run out of gas. Just like you will if you do not set expectations properly.

Expectations also give you something to aspire to beat. As Quentin Tarantino once said “I want to top expectations. I want to blow you away.”. Your long term expectations are there to give the impression you came in ahead. You beat the expectation. If you say something will be done by Wednesday and you complete it on Monday, you look like a rock star. You must begin to not look at expectations as handcuffs and begin to look at them as your friend. Use strategically they put you in a position to constantly exceed and succeed. Any good manager or leader knows and expects expectations. Using logic and data given to you, you can come to the conclusion that that expectation is honest. Do not use expectations as a crutch. That will then begin to erode trust. Keep them realistic and based on data.

Then there is your short term expectation. I call this the insane expectation, if everything goes right. This is what you will work toward. You work toward it until all avenues are exhausted. If you do this, I guarantee you will rarely approach the long term expectation. Working toward the short term expectation will take persuasion, attention, negotiating, hard work, persistence and other skills. In my example, do you think I say it will take three months and then I go back to my office and put my feet up on my desk? No. I say it could take that long, let’s assume that it will and I will work toward the short expectation for the cable service to be implemented. As Robert E. Lee said “It is easier to make our wishes conform to our means than to make our means conform to our wishes.”. Be realistic in the expectations you communicate; you do not live in a fantasy world with a magic wand.

Speed bumps happen. Anyone who has been a part of a project or team activity knows things rarely ever go as desired. I do not like saying problems, I use words like speed bump. A speed bump is a temporary thing; a problem brings with it baggage. Baggage from people’s lives associated with the word problem. Use the word problem sporadically. It is a seasoning, not the meal. So when things happen that are not expected take ownership. This happened, or is happening. Then draw up solutions or options. Then and only then do you discuss with the team. You do not want to be the person who only brings the issues up. State the speed bump, state solutions you have, ask the team or your significant other what their solutions are. Then as a team solve it. Bring something to the table.

Assumptions cannot be a part of expectations. Part of being a leader is communicating. I have come across people throughout my life that leaned heavily on assumptions. It is not hard to take a minute during a meeting to state something you believe is already known. Making sure everyone is on the same page is vitally important to a positive outcome. Maybe Joe told Sally about it, but are you sure? No. So just open up your mouth and make sure. Do not drone on, be to the point and state it. Communication is a large part of expectations. If you do not communicate in general, the expectations you set could be weak and misunderstood.

You should encourage expectations and use them to your advantage. I have heard through my life people say “We are waiting to hear from Bob” or “I have not heard from Sally yet”. This is where reverse expectation engineering comes into play! If you interact with someone who is doing a task for you. You should always have an expectation of next contact. Something as simple as “When can we expect to hear from you next”. Don’t be the victim, be the driver. Drive when people will contact you back. If you are under a deadline something like “We have a meeting on Thursday where we will be discussing this project. Please provide me an update by EOB Wednesday on this speed bump. Thank you for all hard work.”. Remember to end with a compliment!

All too often people play the hurry up and wait game. I do not believe in this, things can be done now. If nothing else communication can happen. Hurry up and wait 50% of the time is laziness. If you wait for people to contact you back and do not reach out to them for follow up, you will go to the bottom of the list. Set the expectations with people that you are on top of the task at hand. Your level of involvement will set the bar for their level of involvement. Setting their expectation of your level of concern and involvement could be the difference between meeting short expectations and long expectations. Don’t be lazy and wait for others, be diligent and involved. This is not to say to micromanage. Some people may take being involved as micromanaging. Let people do their work and tasks, just set expectations and communication to keep the ball rolling.

Apply this to outside work as well. Setting up false expectations, intentionally or unintentionally, can cause a strained relationship. Friends, spouses, children, they all deserve proper expectations from you. Doing so will ensure you rarely let them down due to something you control, setting their expectations of you.

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