The Delicate Art of Managing Expectations

When it comes to success or failure in the workplace, it’s often simply a matter of perception. If you can accomplish more than people thought you could, woila! – you’ll be seen as successful. If you do a lot less however, well, you’ll get tagged as a failure.

Yes, the difference between success and failure can be arbitrary and capricious, subject to whims, pettiness, and even office politics. But in the end, the fine line between success and failure really comes down to just one thing – managing expectations.

Good managers are good because they have a track record of accomplishment. Building such a record is certainly tied to personal skills, but it also has to do with the ability to manage what others around you believe success looks like.

If you can help to set that bar and keep expectations to a reasonable level, and then exceed it, you’ll be a success. And the more control you have over that, the more successful you’ll be.

Here are two examples of what I’m talking about:

A recent story in USA Today focused on the troubles that a lot of retrained workers are having finding jobs that utilize their newly developed skills.

“Enrollment in job-training initiatives across the USA has swelled since the recession began as dislocated workers in shrunken industries such as manufacturing, construction and real estate retool for growing fields such as health care, renewable energy and computers,” the story said. “But a diploma is not necessarily a ticket to a job or higher earnings, especially with the jobless rate still hovering near 10 percent.”

The newspaper talks to a number of different workers who have taken the time to go back and get retrained to help make themselves more employable, only to find that they aren’t having any more luck finding a job after the training than they were before.

The problem is simple: these workers had unreasonable expectations of what retraining would do. They thought it was an E ticket ride to another job, when in reality, it simply widened the pool of jobs they were eligible for.

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Another story in the San Jose Mercury News makes this same point about expectations but in a more personal way. It tells the story of Ron Wayne, one of the co-founders of Apple Computer along with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. He was given 10 percent of the stock when the company was launched back on April 1, 1976 – “a position that would be worth about $22 billion today if Wayne had held onto it” – but he panicked and dumped his Apple stock for a pittance shortly after getting it.

Why would he do that? “Afraid that Jobs’ wild spending and Woz’s recurrent ‘flights of fancy’ would cause Apple to flop,” the newspaper notes, “Wayne decided to abdicate his role as adult-in-chief and bailed out after 12 days. Terrified to be the only one of the three founders with assets that creditors could seize, he sold back his shares for $800.”

Wayne’s expectations were defined by all the potential bad things that could happen to him as a co-founder of Apple. He bailed on the company – and a potential fortune – because his expectations were all wrong. He only saw the ways he could fail instead of succeed, and it led him to a decision that, in retrospect, leaves you shaking your head.

If you want to succeed as a manager or HR professional, you need to master the art of setting reasonable expectations. For me, the key is being able to under-promise and over-deliver. In other words, work at setting expectations others have of you at a level where you can reasonably meet and exceed them.

This is easier said than done, of course, because you don’t always get the opportunity to set expectations. Sometimes, the goals can get changed in midstream, or personalities get involved and can mess with both the expectations and your ability to deliver them.

“I find my life is a lot easier the lower I keep everybody’s expectations,” observed Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, and I agree with that thinking. Managing expectations is a key in life and in work, and your ability to do so will define you as a manager and leader. You better start practicing now — so you don’t end up like Ron Wayne did with Apple.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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