Calibrate Expectations

During this past winter, I had the unfortunate and harrowing experience of being caught in a snowstorm while driving on a rural two-lane highway, and at one point the visibility became so poor that I eventually ended up stuck in a snowdrift on the side of the road.  It was about 10:00 p.m., and when I called for roadside service to come and pull me out, I was informed that it would be about two hours before they could get to me because of the numerous other vehicles also stranded in the snowstorm.  To make matters worse, it was a bitterly cold night with below-zero temperatures, so I had to keep the car running while waited – which would not have been an issue except for the fact that I ran out of gas about an hour and half later.  At that point, I had the hope that the tow truck would be there soon, until I received a call from the towing service that their truck had gotten stuck in the snow and it would likely be at least another hour.  It wasn’t until nearly 1:00 a.m. that I was finally rescued, but don’t think I felt warm again until at least a day later.

The next day, as I was driving to work, my car seemed to be pulling a little to one side, and when I reached highway speed, I started to feel a vibration in the steering wheel.  I told myself that it had to be the condition of the road because I couldn’t fathom that a snowdrift – a pile of white powder – could have affected the alignment of my tires so much.  But when the vibration was still there later that day and again the next morning, I decided to take the car to the mechanic.  As you might expect, after checking the vehicle, he informed me that it was out of alignment, and needed to be calibrated.

That experience serves as an example of a very important lesson for interacting with people: sometimes their expectations need to be calibrated.  People tend to operate with preconceived expectations, and they generally allow their own expectations, whether conscious or not, to effect their perceptions and responses.  I’ve seen it over and over in marriage counseling, when either spouse in a relationship has expectations that they believe should be met, but often those expectations are unrealistic or haven’t been identified and communicated, resulting in frustration and conflict.  She’s expecting some kind of expression of appreciation when he walks in the door, or he’s expecting some kind of affirmation when she walks in the door; but when they walk through the door, rather than giving appreciation or affirmation, each one waits with an expectation, and when that expectation is unmet, resentment begins to build.

The same happens in an organization, when expectations have not been appropriately identified and communicated.  Customers or constituents expect a certain product, service, or response, and they often have a preconceived idea in their minds of what that product, service, or response should look like.  Employees have an internal (generally unspoken) expectation of compensation, recognition, provision of resources, communication, and so on, from their leaders.  Leaders have an expectation of performance and commitment from their employees.  And everyone has a personal viewpoint on how things should be done, which becomes their expectation.  So when those expectations are allowed to exist without being appropriately calibrated, the result is a “vibration” that causes tension, conflict, frustration, and anger.

That’s why it is important for leaders to calibrate expectations.  It is the leader who is “responsible for direction, protection, orientation, managing conflict, and shaping norms”  (Heifetz and Laurie, p. 65), and who therefore “orients people to new roles and responsibilities by clarifying business realities and key values” (Heifetz and Laurie, p. 65).  If people know what to expect because you have clearly communicated what they should expect, then when those expectations are met, those same people are satisfied and supportive.  Not only have you met their expectations, you have also demonstrated consistency by doing what you said you would do, which builds trust.  And this needs to be a proactive skill, not a reactive response.  Don’t wait until someone is frustrated because you didn’t establish expectations.  Instead, get out in front of it.  When I meet with people, I make it a normal practice to establish expectations for the meeting on the front end, so that everyone knows what we think will come out of the meeting.  At the end of the meeting, I then communicate what they can expect me to do moving forward.  By doing this, I have calibrated expectations to match the reality of what will happen, and the result is a much more cooperative and supportive relationship.

You can and should do the same.  Help people to know and understand what they should expect from you, from your organization, or from an experience.  Calibrate expectations, which will help them to listen better, respond with more support, and walk away more satisfied.

Heifetz, R. A., and Laurie, D. L. (2011). “The Work of Leadership,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

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