It’s been called the foundation of engagement and a key to high performance. But it’s a surprisingly difficult skill to master. So when it comes to your employees, how do you effectively manage expectations?
From an HR perspective, two of the most interesting statistics that Gallup has generated are that very few employees describe themselves as engaged (only 24 per cent in Australia) and that only half strongly agree they know what’s expected of them at work. Gallup believes they’re connected, and describe setting clear expectations as “the most foundational element” of engagement.
But what does it mean to manage expectations? There are plenty of articles about it online and elsewhere but, ironically, most aren’t particularly clear. The problem is that when people talk about expectations at work, they are usually referring to one of two things. The first is the requirements of a role, the second, what is required to achieve top performance in that role and move beyond it.
As HRM has reported on previously, up to 20 per cent of new hires leave in the first 45 days. That same study found that only 40 per cent of the surveyed organisations thought their onboarding practices were effective.
Considering that applying for a job and going through the recruitment process requires considerable commitment, it seems logical that a large part of why recruits quit early is that the job they find themselves doing, isn’t the one they expected.
Again, the precise problem can vary. Is it a lack of cultural alignment? Does the role have tasks that weren’t identified during recruitment, or perhaps responsibilities that were promised that never materialised?
HR expert and author, Tim Baker has argued that one problem for organisations ability to set proper expectations is the traditional job description. It doesn’t account for “non-job roles”, certain soft skills which all managers and organisations are looking for from their employees. The fix, according to Baker, is to replace the job description with something more comprehensive.
But perhaps it’s the case, as some have argued, that the job will eventually be a good fit but that the onboarding process itself is arduous. The new hire takes too long to become comfortable with the organisation, and leaves early.
A 2014 study found that 76 per cent of the new recruits surveyed felt that on-the-job training was required to get them contributing quickly. To make this happen, Diane Faulkner on adp.com argues HR should use their “onboarding program to orient new employees and handle the administrative steps before they start” (emphasis added) so that the manager “will have more time to dedicate to ensuring they understand their role and feel invested in the organisation”.
Other common suggestions for making sure you onboard well are:
- Be realistic in the initial job posting, both about what the job is and what your organisation is like.
- Get the recruit to feel empowered in the role by getting them excited about the opportunities available to them.
- Focus on the employee’s strengths, and encourage them to shape their job role around them as much as possible
- Push back where necessary. Managing expectations isn’t about promising the moon, it’s about promising the possible.
In a recent study published in Human Performance, authors Stephen Frenkel and Tim Bednall examined how and to what extent employees’ effort at work (which they give the wonky name Discretionary Work Effort) is affected by the training and career advancement offered by their employer.
They found that employees don’t work harder because of the promotions and training they’ve received in the past so much as “the provision of training and promotion opportunity provides evidence to employees that their organisation will meet their future career aspirations.” So it’s not “what have you done for me lately?” it’s the less catchy “what are you going to do for me in the future?”
In this light, managing employee expectations around career development seems not only sensitive and linked with staff retention, it’s tied directly to staff productivity.
The study itself stresses the importance of “procedural justice” and “interactional justice”. The first is your organisation’s system of rewarding employees – if it’s fair and clear you incentivise the best workers to work harder. The second is an employee’s perception of their treatment by their supervisor.
These two things come to a head when an employee seeks a promotion that is not on the cards. Here, managing expectations is about communication.
Again, there are endless guides. But in this case, they’re all saying essentially the same things.
- Be polite, and take their request seriously.
- Frame the opportunity for promotion in the future as a tangible possibility. Map out clearly the path to promotion, and how it will be achieved with continuing development.
- To this point: find out if a promotion is the means or the end. Are they in fact just seeking more responsibility, greater freedom, or more recognition?