Is Your Company Suffering from Expectation Alignment Dysfunction?

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Mar 31, 2017
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

It happens to the best of us — Expectation Alignment Dysfunction, or EAD. If you haven’t experienced it yet, you probably will. It’s fast becoming the leading killer of employee engagement and a detractor from the Employee Experience (EX) in organizations today.

While it may sound like an unfortunate condition affecting middle-aged men, it’s actually [clickToTweet tweet=”Unhappy, disengaged workers? If may be Employee Alignment Dysfunction.” quote=”an unfortunate condition affecting organizations of all types.”]

Expectation alignment is the degree to which employee expectations for their experience in the workplace line up with their actual experience. When those expectations don’t align, EAD is the result. Warning signs of EAD include:

  • Increased turnover or talk of resignations;
  • Lower employee engagement, with no obvious cause;
  • Increase in customer complaints or decrease in the customer experience (CX);
  • Decrease in quality or quantity of output;
  • Increased anxiety levels among workers;
  • Employees not meeting goals or benchmarks;
  • Anger and resentment among employees;
  • The spread of negative rumors about individuals and/or the organization;
  • An increase in disciplinary or performance-related actions.

It starts before you hire

An employee begins setting expectations even before she becomes an employee — at first contact with your brand. For the prospective employee, expectations about your organization start to form as she browses your website, has first contact with a recruiter, and even when she gets her brother-in-law’s unsolicited loudmouthed opinion at the family barbeque.

Expectations continue to form during the interview and then, if she’s hired, continue forming during onboarding and every day thereafter. While many of these expectations are set during the onboarding process, most are established during the employee’s tenure. But many employees find they are in for something that’s not what they signed up for, or at least that’s their perception. Some of the biggest contributors to EAD include:

  • Implied promises from the work environment and company culture. The everyday environment of an organization implies certain promises. For example, suppose a department has a reputation for fast-tracking millennials. A new millennial employee may have expectations that she will be supervising a team within six months. When that doesn’t happen, EAD leads to disengagement and feelings of broken promises — even when an explicit promise was never made. Is she right? It doesn’t matter. In the employee’s mind, a promise was made, and not fulfilled. And she will act on perception, not reality.
  • Poor management communication or perceived secrecy. When communication is poor or missing, employees will fill in the blanks. Sometimes what goes in these blanks is accurate. Often, it’s not. Yet, expectations and perceptions are created. When management makes too many decisions behind closed doors, it leads to…
  • Rumors and stories. Rumors and gossip are the enemies of Expectation Alignment because they fill employees’ heads with unsupportable claims. Examples include variations on the, “They’re- going-to-lay-people-off” rumor, which can lead to everything from panic to workplace sabotage. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the, “We’re going-public” rumor (or others with a similar tone), which some construe to mean, “We’re all getting stock options and are going to be rich.” Obviously, not all rumors relate to the future of the organization. But when rumors detract from the employee experience, they are dangerous.
  • Unclear employer expectations. Often, employee expectations are simply the result of unclear or non-explicit employer expectations. As we conduct employee exit interviews with some of our client organizations, we find that often employees who are “exited” (the politically correct term for “fired because you weren’t doing a very good job”) simply didn’t know the employer had certain performance expectations, and thought they were fulfilling the job requirements. It’s pretty tough to hit a target you didn’t know existed.
  • News stories and other information from the broader culture. It’s not realistic to expect employees to see news coverage of IPOs, ethics violations, unemployment rates, and other business events and not have that information affect what they expect from the future. Managers who are not aware of what’s going on “out there” are often equally oblivious to what’s going on “in here.”
  • When rules and policies are enforced differently based on the circumstances, or enforced differently for some employees than for others, EAD is often the outcome. When inconsistency is the norm, the only expectation employees can count on is vacillation. Lack of trust is the result.
  • Over-promising. Sometimes we see managers set up expectations they can’t deliver on. There are times when these expectations or promises are well-intentioned, positioned to give employees a positive reason to contribute. However, when managers over-promise and under-deliver, EAD soon follows.

The cure for EAD

The good news is that there is, in fact, a cure for EAD. It’s not as simple as taking a pill, but there are 4 steps that can stop the progress of EAD, or even prevent it from occurring in the first place:

  1. Temperature taking. It sounds like the biggest no-brainer of all time, but many managers simply don’t bother to find out what employees are thinking and what they expect from their EX. HR needs to push managers to talk to their team openly and honestly. Conduct regular surveys. Create confidential feedback channels to encourage regular, candid opinions. Insist they keep their finger on their people’s pulse and tell them why.
  2. Cross-checks. Have managers connect with individual employees about what they expect, and how that aligns with what the employees expect. Clarify the gray areas, and get them out in the open. Open discussions mean nothing festers behind the scenes.
  3. Cultural pruning. In some organizations, parts of the internal culture encourage people to either form unrealistic expectations or cause their expectations to mutate irrationally. Cultural pruning is minimizing or excising aspects of your culture that encourages harmful or inaccurate expectations. Sometimes this means changing processes. Unfortunately, this may also mean taking a good, hard look at your people — and taking action, when required.
  4. Intentional language. View the language the organization uses, especially in written documents, for how it might inflate expectations, over-promise, or provoke fears of secrecy or falsehood. Check to see if what might be clear at the top of the organization would be clear at the bottom of the organization as well. Avoid “corporate-ese” and speak plainly.

Issue this warning?

Symptoms of EAD may include heartburn, sleeplessness, loss of employee control, high blood pressure, panic attacks, résumé updating, unpleasant meetings, angry customers, and turnover. Contact your manager if EAD lasts for more than, well, any amount of time that results in poor performance.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.