Are your leaders sabotaging employees with unspoken expectations?

Leaders that cause staff to wonder what their true expectations are create anxious, unproductive teams, says Mark Murphy:

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Feb 16, 2024

There’s a frequent challenge that employees face – and it’s deciphering the true expectations of their bosses, especially regarding deadlines.

This phenomenon, often rooted in the disparity between stated deadlines and the unspoken, earlier ones in a boss’s mind, can significantly impact employees’ performance and recognition.

Many bosses, owing to their history as high-performing individual contributors, possess a dual deadline system – the official one they communicate to employees and the personal one they hold in their minds.

And such, this internal benchmark, based on their own (past), capabilities, becomes a yardstick to measure current employees’ performance.

For instance, a manager who used to complete reports in one day might now give their team three days. Subconsciously, they might still believe that one day is sufficient, setting a hidden bar for performance assessment.

Discrepancy that leads to sabotage

The problem is that this discrepancy between perceived and communicated deadlines can inadvertently lead to a form of sabotage.

If employees fail to meet these unspoken standards, they might unknowingly miss out on opportunities for career advancement, mentorship, or promotions, mirroring the path their boss once took.

Leadership styles play a crucial role in this dynamic.

For example, ‘Pragmatist’ leaders, known for their high standards and goal-driven approach, often exemplify this trait.

Figures like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk are archetypes of this style.

Although it’s not the most common style (fewer than 15% of leaders have it), the problem is, is that it gets more common the higher up in the hierarchy a leader ranks.

The good and the bad

Employees who relish challenges and are highly ambitious may thrive under such leaders, interpreting these expectations (spoken or unspoken) as a catalyst for growth.

However, for people seeking a more balanced work environment, these intense, unarticulated expectations can feel overwhelming and even like a form of workplace sabotage.

To really determine just how good/bad this is though, we also need to assess the rationale behind a leader’s thoughts on accelerated deadlines.

Is the shorter timeline they envision genuinely necessary, does it stem from an inability to prioritize effectively.

Or, is it just an unreasonable expectation?

It’s worth remembering that the speed at which a leader could have completed a task in the past doesn’t always translate into a practical or necessary deadline for their team today.

This is especially true in a landscape where the complexity of tasks and team dynamics vary significantly.

So, leaders need to strike a balance between challenging their teams and ensuring realistic, achievable goals.

By imposing unnecessarily tight deadlines, they risk not only the quality of the output, but also the wellbeing of their employees.

In an era where employee burnout is a growing concern, leaders have a responsibility to assess the impact of their expectations on their team’s mental health and job satisfaction.

The need for more thoughtful deadlines

Setting longer, more thoughtful deadlines can sometimes be a strategic decision, contributing to a healthier, more sustainable work environment.

It’s not just about getting the job done; it’s about getting it done in a way that maintains the team’s long-term productivity and morale.

Will every leader get this message though? On a practical level, I don’t think they will.

So it’s worth HR teaching employees how to do a bit of managing upwards.

When staff ask the boss, “How long do you think this project should really take?” they can unveil the hidden benchmarks that they are being judged against.

This conversation not only clarifies expectations but also provides an opportunity to impress by meeting or exceeding these unspoken standards.

When a boss sets a distant deadline, say the 15th of the month, good leadership should be about taking the opportunity to explore various delivery options.

Staff can always deliver earlier depending on a proper assessment of a task’s complexity and the manager’s actual expectations.

This approach offers a chance to significantly exceed expectations and establish a reputation for efficiency and reliability.

A key to navigating and excelling in the workplace is revealing the unspoken expectations of bosses.

By proactively seeking clarity and aligning delivery with these hidden standards, employees can not only meet but exceed expectations, transforming potential workplace sabotage into an opportunity for outstanding performance.