Management, Simplified

Handling expectations is key to effective leadership.


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There are thousands of books and articles devoted to the art of management. As a student of managing people, I have read many such publications and have found all to have something to offer that will help develop a manager’s skills. These publications differ in their approaches to management, and some even offer proven keys to management success. 

Now, I don’t wish to sound trite about the skills required for managers to get things done through others, but my experience tells me that effective management is based on doing three key things well: creating expectations, communicating expectations and managing expectations. As basic as this might seem, managers who can accomplish these goals will be successful. Let’s look at each a little further. 

Creating expectations. This is the critical first step in the management process. Every manager needs to develop a clear understanding about what he expects from his employees. The late Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” said it best with the phrase, “Begin with the end in mind.” If we don’t know what the end point is, we won’t know how to get there, nor if we have ever arrived. Expectations need to be reasonable, so they will motivate employees, and measurable, so that both managers and employees will know if they are being met. 

Expectations can take many forms. They can be productivity related, such as units per hour, shipments per day or number of documents created. They can be quality related, such as first-pass yield rate, defects per million opportunities or number of customer returns. They can be training related, such as number of procedures to learn and use, skill level to be achieved on key machines or equipment, or number of classes/seminars attended over a predetermined period of time. Whatever form these expectations take, they must be deemed important to the manager’s area of responsibility so they will receive the necessary support. Once the expectations are set, it’s time to move on to the next step:

Communicating expectations. As simple as this might sound, this is the step during which the management process often goes awry. Some managers have a clear understanding of what they expect from their employees but do a poor job of communicating these expectations to those employees. Such managers either don’t communicate the expectations in a clear manner or, even worse, don’t communicate them at all. This leads to employee frustration and the perception that communication is a company-wide weakness (this is one of the most common complaints employees express about their companies). 

Fortunately, many managers do communicate well to their employees. After taking the time to create expectations, they often invest just as much time ensuring that those expectations are understood by the employees. They recognize that an expectation that is not clearly communicated is one that is unlikely to be realized. They also recognize that the simpler and more straight-forward the communication (without ambiguous terms like “pretty soon” or “fairly important”), the better. Measureable expectations actually are easier to communicate, due to their numbers-oriented nature (500 pieces, three jobs, two machines) and focus on time (within two months, by June 1, every week).

Managers who communicate effectively recognize that, to ensure that employees understand the expectations, follow-up, more follow-up and still more follow-up is needed. They have learned that the communication process does not stop until employees demonstrate understanding. Once expectations are communicated and understood by employees, it’s time for the third step:

Managing expectations. Managing expectations requires knowing how well the employees are meeting those that have been assigned to them. This must be done through interaction with each employee that includes reviewing progress. This is the only way to verify whether or not expectations are being met. This process is certainly easier when employees are meeting expectations, because then all that is necessary is periodic recognition of the employees’ efforts and reinforcing of the positive results. It is harder when the employees are not meeting expectations. In those cases, more frequent discussions are needed with the goal of improving performance. This may involve providing some assistance, refocusing employee efforts, further clarifying expectations, addressing factors that may be hindering employee success, or even modifying expectations if they turn out to be unrealistic due to unforeseen circumstances.

The primary role of any manager is to get things done through others. That manager has a greater chance of accomplishing this if he or she can create clear, reasonable and measurable expectations; effectively communicate those expectations to employees; and manage those expectations to successful outcomes.