Tag Archive for Harvard Business Review

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.

Quotable (Heifetz & Laurie, on giving people a voice)

“Giving a voice to all people is the foundation of an organization that is willing to experiment and learn.”   The Work of Leadership, Ronald A. Heifetz & Donald L. Laurie


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.

Give People a Voice

There was a time when leadership was viewed as an authoritative role that looked something like this:  I am in charge, I know what needs to be done, I tell you what to do, and you do it.  The assumption was that the leader was the one who really knew what was best, so he talked and the followers listened.  Classrooms used to operate the same way, when teachers would lecture and students would listen and take notes; but it was a very one-sided dialogue.  Studies of leadership now recognize that this is not effective leadership, and that now we need to be willing to give people a voice in the process.  Heifetz and Laurie found that “giving a voice to all people is the foundation of an organization that is willing to experiment and learn” (p. 69). However, that doesn’t mean that it’s no longer a struggle for us to do, and so it is still something that we need to intentionally cultivate in ourselves and in our leadership.

A couple of important concepts have helped me to recognize this truth.  One was the realization that many people know much more than I do about many things, and there are many things that others can do better than I. I don’t know everything, and I am not the most skilled at everything.  Therefore, I can be more effective when I tap into the knowledge and skills of others, but that, in turn, means giving them an opportunity to contribute.  A second truth was the realization that those who are closest to a situation – those on the ground floor – generally have the greatest understanding of what is taking place.  The people actually doing the job often have the best understanding of what works and what does not.  The result, then, is that I have learned that I need to give people a voice, especially in the process of implementing change.  If people are given the ability to speak into the process, they will in turn take more ownership of it and will be more involved and more committed.

So, knowing that we need to give people a voice, there are at least three principles that are necessary in order for it to successfully begin to happen:

1)    Include those who will be impacted.  This may include those who will be affected by the results of the change (like customers), those who have to implement the change (like the ground-floor employees), those who have to lead the change (like the managers), and those who are working to determine and design the change (like the leadership).  All of them will be affected in some way by decisions and change, so if they are not given an opportunity to speak or contribute, they are much more like to resist and react.  As Peter Drucker explains, “Effective executives make sure that both their action plans and their information needs are understood.  Specifically, this means that they share their plans with and ask for comments from their colleagues – superiors, subordinates, and peers” (p. 31).  It is dangerous to leadership to impose a strategic plan or to implement initiatives without first giving all of those groups a voice in the process.

2)    Make it safe for people to talk. Years ago, when my children were little, I learned that one of the best things that parents could do to encourage stronger communication from their children in the teenage years was to make it safe for them to talk. If I react harshly, or with ridicule or condemnation, they will learn that it is not safe to share, and will shut down.  The same thing happens in our organizations if we respond negatively when others try to give input.  We need to remember that “the voices from below are usually not as articulate as one would wish, . . . [but] buried inside a poorly packaged interjection may lie an important intuition that needs to be teased out and considered. To toss it out for its bad timing, lack of clarity or seemingly unreasonableness is to lose potentially valuable information and discourage a potential leader in the organization” (Heifetz & Laurie, p. 69).  It is therefore the responsibility of the leader to create a safe environment “for diverse groups to talk to one another about the challenges facing them, to frame and debate issues, and to clarify the assumptions behind competing perspectives and values” (Heifetz & Laurie, p. 64).  If it is not safe to speak, they won’t.

3)    Listen and validate.  My wife has the gift of empathy, but I do not, and so over the years she has helped me to learn how important it is to make people feel validated.  I have realized, by putting it into practice, that when people feel validated, they are much more receptive; and, vice versa, when they don’t feel validated, they are much more defensive.  As Seth Godin says in Tribes, “People want to be sure you heard what they said – they’re less focused on whether or not you do what they said” (2008, p. 128). It is not enough to simply listen, but I must also include a response that makes people feel heard and understood.  This means, “listening with the intention of genuinely understanding the thoughts and feelings of the speaker . . . [therefore], spend time trying to understand others’ perspectives, listening with an open mind and without judgment” (Ancona, Malone, Orlikowski, and Senge, pp. 185-186).

I will be a more effective leader when others are able to contribute.  They will bring knowledge, experience, different perspectives, important questions, and an understanding of real-life implications, and so it makes sense that they need to be allowed and encouraged to speak up.  Therefore they need to have a voice.  And for them to have voice, I have to provide an environment that lets it happen.  Include them.  Make it safe.  Listen and validate what they have to say. Give people a voice.

(Look for more thoughts on this in an upcoming Leadership Lessons from the Bible post later this month, taken out of an example from the leadership of Ezra)

Ancona, D., Malone, T. W., Orlikowski, W. J., and Senge, P. M. (2011). “In Praise of the Incomplete Leaders,” HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

Drucker, P. F. (2011). “What Makes an Effective Executive,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

Godin, S. (2008). Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us. Portfolio: New York, NY.

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.

Be Consistent

“Your walk talks and your talk talks, but your walk talks louder than your talk talks.”  I heard my father say this many times when I was growing up, in his effort to teach the importance of being genuine.  The lesson reinforced to me on numerous occasions was that my words – what I say – and my actions – what I do – need to match.  In fact, the reality is that people will judge me more by my actions than by my words.

As I grew into an adult, I eventually realized that I had unconsciously taken on many of my father’s characteristics that I had learned by watching his “walk.” Interestingly, I think the same thing is true in organizations: people within the organization, over time, take on many of the characteristics of the leader.  I’m reminded of the classic parenting line, “Do as I say and not as I do,” which we all know is not what really happens; we tend to do what we see.  That same conclusion was reached by Albert Bandura in his studies on behavior modification and observational learning, most notably in his classic “Bobo doll” study (1969, 1986, 2003).

One of the primary applications of this truth is the importance of consistency in leadership.  In essence, do what you say you will do. I found strong affirmation of this in a recent study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, which was undertaken to identify “what separates the competent from the exceptional individual performers” using over 50,000 360-degree evaluations on 4150+ individual contributors over a five-year time period. Stated in an article in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, they said, “Walk the Talk. It’s easy for some people to casually agree to do something and then let it slip their minds.  Most people would say that this is mere forgetfulness.  We disagree.  We believe it is dishonest behavior.  If you commit to doing something, barring some event truly beyond your control, you should follow through.  The best individual contributors are careful not to say one thing and do another.  They are excellent role models for others.  This is the competency for which the collective group of 4,158 individuals we studied received the highest scores.  That means, essentially, that following through on commitments is table stakes.  But exceptional individual contributors go far beyond the others in their scrupulous practice of always doing what they say they will do.” (Zenger & Folkman, 2014)

Consistency in what you do is one of the most important factors in your credibility as a leader.  It gives you trust, makes you believable.  John Kotter made the same connection between consistency and credibility when he said, “Another big challenge in leadership efforts is credibility – getting people to believe the message.  Many things contribute to credibility: the track record of the person delivering the message, the content of the message itself, the communicator’s reputation for integrity and trustworthiness, and the consistency between words and deeds.” (HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership, 2011, p. 48)  I had the opportunity to live this out in one organization that had an absence of trust between leadership and employees when I arrived.  In my first year, I became very intentional about communicating publicly what I would be doing (both minor and major things), and then making sure that people saw that I did those things.  I wanted them to know that I would do what I said I would do, so that they could trust me.  My efforts were affirmed when, during an evaluation process at the end of the first year, the consensus of the employees indicated that “trust of leadership” was one of the most positive aspects of the year.

I want to go one layer deeper in this principle.  The consistency of doing what you say you will do is critical to effective leadership, but it will really only work well if it is genuine, and it is only genuine if it is who you are.  In other words, it’s not simply about your actions matching your words, but your life matching your values.  Jim Collins calls this “consistency of action – consistency with values, consistency with long-term goals, consistency with performance standards, consistency of method, consistency over time.”  (Collins & Hansen, 2011, p. 21) Consistency begins with what you say, is demonstrated by what you do, but is validated in who you are.  It is actually at this deeper level that you will find the strength and courage to resist the pressure to compromise in ways that make you inconsistent, especially when circumstances are difficult.

Bandura, A. (1969). Principles of Behavior Modification. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: a social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (2003). On the Psychosocial Impact and Mechanisms of Spiritual Modeling. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 13(3), 167.

Collins, J., & Hansen, M. T. (2011). Great by Choice:  Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. (2011). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2014, April 11, 2014). The Behaviors that Define A-Players.