The surprising reasons employees are not exceeding expectations

Talk to most HR or talent management leaders, and you’ll soon find out they can tell you the percentage of employees that are meeting vs. exceeding expectations. This shouldn’t be a surprise really. This type of information has become expected. The problem however, that while these statistics are readily available amongst the HR population, fewer than half of employees themselves actually know whether their performance is where it should be.

If you think about, it’s absurd that an employee wouldn’t know whether they’re delivering good or great work.

In the real world though, there are many reasons why this happens. For example, in the new Leadership IQ study (called Why Company Values Are Falling Short?), we learned only 24% of organizations have actually detailed to staff the specific behaviors necessary to live their corporate values. We also know that while companies often plaster their values all over the place, most don’t take the necessary next step of breaking these values down into concrete behaviors. (Oh, and just in case you’re wondering whether taking that step makes a difference, employees have 107% higher employee engagement when their company has detailed the behaviors needed to live their company’s values).

How come staff don’t know about their performance?

Ironically the reason why many firms don’t do things like prescribed their values clearly, or tell people how they’re doing, is because leaders actually resist this kind of directiveness and structure.

Why? Well, not only is doing so painstaking work, some leaders think it stifles creativity by setting overly-concrete behaviors and expectations for employees. But here’s the problem. While it is indeed possible to go overboard with this sort of thing, we also know from the more than one million people who have taken the test “What’s Your Leadership Style?” that many people actually prefer some kind of directness from their leaders. In short, staff want to know the specific behaviors that define success.

Leaders that define what success looks like

What we’ve found through our research is that staff with managers who demonstrate a Steward leadership style, will be far luckier than others. These leaders value rules and processes. They tend to set highly detailed expectations, and provide explicit directions rather than vague guidance. They also invest significant time ensuring everyone knows the right and wrong ways to perform their work.

But consider this: if you’ve got a team of seasoned and creative experts with a history of exceeding expectations, this steward management style could soon start to feel a bit stifling (as I’m sure it does to many people reading this article).

So does this mean more leaders shouldn’t be stewards? The answer is yes. Think about it from the perspective of an employee who isn’t the top performer in the department; someone who wants to achieve greater career success but isn’t sure exactly how to exceed expectations. Those people, who likely comprise a majority of employees, might benefit from more descriptive explanations and directive coaching about what specific actions are required to exceed expectations. While it’s easy to stifle superstars with too much directiveness, you’re unlikely to stifle people who desperately want some direction about how to advance their careers.

How do you know if you should be providing more explicit direction?

You can certainly ask people directly whether they’d like you to more explicitly detail your expectations. You can also start asking employees,“What do you see as the difference between good work and great work on this project?”

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I would say the blank stares you’re likely to get from the bulk of employees should be enough to tell you that you’ve got to provide much more explicit direction about the line between meeting and exceeding expectations.

Being explicit is not being overbearing

What people need to remember is that it’s not overbearing to coach people explicitly on the difference between good and great work. In fact, the more explicit you are, the more freedom you’re giving employees to decide for themselves which level of performance they want to achieve.

If you don’t spell out the exact differences between meeting and exceeding expectations, you can actually force employees into a parent-child relationship where they’re constantly seeking affirmation and approval. This is because they don’t have enough information to evaluate their own performance. In these situations they are forced to seek constant evaluation and affirmation from their boss. If that sounds miserable, it’s because it is.

So, if you’re employees don’t actually know the difference between good and great work, or between meeting and exceeding expectations, then you need to take a few minutes and list out the specific behaviors that comprise these differences.

One of the fastest ways to reduce bias is to have explicit criteria for evaluation. Without explicit criteria, however, the difference between meeting and exceeding expectations rests solely on the manager’s personal judgments. That’s bad for the employees and frustrating for leaders.

 

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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