Leadership & The Expectation Gap

Leadership & The Expectation Gap

By Mike Myatt, Chief Executive Officer, N2growth

When it comes to leadership, I can share the issues of creating and delivering on expectations are no small matter. In fact, understanding how to come out on the right-side of the expectation curve can often be the difference between being viewed as an average leader and one held in high regard. Let me make this as simple as I can; managing expectations is gamesmanship – aligning them is leadership. Moving the goal posts by arbitrarily raising and lowering expectations creates confusion, and is often an intellectually dishonest exercise. Aligning expectations doesn’t need to be difficult – set them, align them, stick to them, and execute on them.

Conflicts, disagreements, disputes, and litigation are often born out of expectation gaps. The thing leaders need to keep in mind is expectations cut both ways. Keeping what you perceive as being your end of the bargain is only half of the equation, as what you think only matters if it’s in alignment with the understanding of the other party. We have all found ourselves in the unenviable position of assigning work product only to end-up with the deliverable falling far short of expectations, while having the producer of said work product thinking they exceeded all expectations. I’ve often said, those leaders who fail to clearly communicate their expectations have no right to them.

Nothing engenders confidence and creates a trust bond like delivering on promises made, and likewise, few things erode confidence and credibility like commitments not kept. Leaders who deliver on promises quickly rise to the top, and those that fail to develop this skill won’t survive long.  The best leaders make a practice of saying what they mean, meaning what they say, and doing what they say they’ll do.

The science of aligning expectations is about systematically connecting what is said with what is done. The art of aligning expectations is about closing, or better yet, eliminating the expectation gap. Blend the art and science together and you have the framework for what is becoming the differentiating factor in performance based decisioning. Several years ago I created the Venn diagram depicted below to explain the confluence of factors that need to occur in order to close the expectation gap:

Expectations exist throughout the entire value chain, with every stakeholder needing and deserving to have their expectations understood and met (hopefully exceeded). Whether it is addressing customer expectations, board expectations, shareholder or analyst expectations, or the inverse situation of employees having to deal with the expectations of executives, it is the ability to excel at decisioning based upon setting, aligning and executing expectations that creates high performance organizations.

Promises made and consistently kept based upon solid reasoning and underlying business logic, will help to create a solid brand attracting loyal customers and talented employees. The following three practices will help create an organization that delivers on its commitments:

  1. Collaborate early and often: Decisioning in a vacuum, or without all the facts, will place you in a deficit from the beginning. It is at best extremely difficult to align expectations and deliver on commitments made if you don’t have clear visibility as to what is wanted or needed. Before making promises or commitments collaborate with all concerned parties to ensure that expectations are understood.
  2. Resist making verbal commitments: Most misunderstandings occur as a result of improper interpretation of oral communications. Most broken commitments result from impulsive verbal promises made before all the details were sorted out. Once you have gained clarity as to the perceived need to be fulfilled, place your understanding of the deliverables in writing by outlining key business points and circulate the document for review and comments. Where possible resist formalizing agreements, proposals, or other commitments until you have alignment on key expectations and deliverables.
  3. Treat promises like projects: Build a culture that breaks down all commitments into deliverables, benchmarks and deadlines. Allocate resources, budget and staff while delivering the commitment within a framework of measured accountability. Treating all commitments and promises as formal projects will help manage performance risk and will also create continuity of process and delivery.

Performance focused decisioning based upon principles of expectation alignment will lead to a certainty of execution that should translate into one of your company’s greatest competitive advantages. Top CEOs recognize that they can promise and deliver, under-promise and over-deliver, or even over-promise and deliver…they just don’t dare over-promise and under-deliver. Thoughts?