Blog: The high expectation imperative in leadership

Employee Engagement

The high expectation imperative in leadership

Expectation setting has become one of the most underrated tasks of a leader. Its time for leaders to reflect and rebuild using ignored practices. In other words, time to go back to basics.
The high expectation imperative in leadership

In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment, leaders have been forced to become increasingly adaptable to be able to plan forward, take quick decisions and manage risks in the way they manage their departments or businesses. Since the need for results has now become immediate, it has increasingly forced managers to change their mindset and view their environment with a focus to deliver short term rather than long-term results.  Leaders are now focused on keeping their ear to the ground and looking out for disruptive forces and then at times looking at the ‘quick wins’ and the ‘low hanging fruit’. Everyone in corporate corridors is in panic mode trying to keep their business competitive or even afloat. Nobody wants to get blindsided and not see someone creep out of the shadows and leap ahead of them. While this might be the need of the hour for businesses to deal with the urgent and important (as Stephen Covey says, “living in Quadrant 1”), it is also impacting the way managers are handling talent in their teams and organizations.

After liberalization in the early 90s, corporate India has seen explosive growth. Opening the floodgates resulted in an overnight influx of multi-national corporations, new businesses, and growth in existing businesses. In terms of people, there was a complete flip in the demand-supply gap for talent. This meant that now instead of companies choosing talent, people had choices. This gave prominence to a phrase once unheard in India – ‘The war for talent’. So much so that there is now a dearth of skilled talent in the market. Some figures even say that close to 50% of the educated youth is unemployable and it goes up to close to 80% for engineering graduates. A situation very apt to what the 19th-century poet Samuel Coleridge wrote, “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink (sic)”. Which of course at some level highlights the desperate need to upgrade our education and training infrastructure.

Zooming in on the current corporate scenario, this dearth of talent has forced organizations to promote employees because there was no one better and at the same time they didn’t want to lose the employee. In some cases, this is also due to organizations trying to demonstrate a healthy attrition figure. Some organizations have been attempting to put systems and processes in place to identify and retain (what they think and consider as) key talent. This may sound cynical but the truth is that most organizations are still struggling to figure out what defines key talent. While many might be able to define it, they don’t have managers who are equipped to differentiate between good performers and key talent.  Remember, this is the same manager who got promoted without having been fully baked for the role. Most often the most productive or efficient employees (keeping aside the pets and sycophants) get labeled as key talent. The rest of the folks, by default, are the lesser mortals (of course never explicitly). 

Now as the dust has started settling and organizations have come to terms with this reality, one key element which deserves focus is how managers are currently viewing and setting performance expectations. This issue was something I discovered to be deep-rooted when I had discussions with managers about the year-end ratings they were planning to give to their performers. Most managers (knowing their organization’s rating scale) were keen on giving a team member a higher rating for performance that had just about met expectations. Some of the reasons the managers give to justify this were:

  • I don’t want to demotivate the person

  • Historically this is how we have always rated everyone

  • I don’t want to adversely impact my team’s satisfaction/engagement score

  • He’s better than the rest

  • This is a rare skill-set in the market

  • I don’t want to rock the boat

  • I don’t want his bonus to be impacted. (I’m not making this up!)

When managers are not comfortable being objective with the performance of their team members (for whatever reason) it sends a message that they are willing to live with mediocre (or even good) performance without getting performers to push the envelope. 

So, what has this got to do with expectations? Everything!

Per a Gallup survey, as many as 50% of workers say they don’t really know what is expected of them in their job. With that being the case, for obvious reasons, a lot of managers today have lost sight of the fact that higher expectations lead to an increase in performance (a.k.a., The Pygmalion Effect) and their role in getting their teams to deliver phenomenal results.

Goals versus expectations

To start with, goal setting itself is a challenge in most organizations. In those organizations where it happens, it often ends up becoming a beginning of the year tick in the box activity. At times goals are often unattainable or not at all challenging. To add to this, most managers use the two terms goal setting and expectations interchangeably. For them, goals are also their expectations from their performers. 

While goals are specific outcomes that need to be achieved, expectations are a framework on how they need to be achieved. They are the written (and more often unwritten) rules and protocol on what and how things need to be done. They are also the behaviors and characteristics that are expected from performers while achieving their goals. 

A good exercise worth trying with your teams would be to first write down what your top two expectations are from your team and then ask each team member to individually pen down their belief of what are the top two expectations from them. Chances are, most will write down their top two goals.

The first step to engaging employees is to share with them not only their goals but key expectations from them with respect to their goals and their role in the organization. 

Great(er) expectations 

Once expectations have been established, it is the role of the leaders to gradually start exploring the potential for higher levels of performance.

It has been widely researched by behavioral scientists that high expectations result in higher performance. Now, this can only happen when a leader has a fundamental belief that his performers can achieve a lot more than they are currently capable of. This all starts with how leaders see their performers and their capabilities. In the words of Goethe, “If you treat an individual... as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”

While higher expectations are important, what is also important is how a leader treats his/her performer. The two go hand in hand. How a performer is treated is encapsulated in the approach the leader takes in working with the performer on his goals, ongoing performance, developing new skills, providing necessary support, and helping the performer navigate the organization. It also entails coaching and mentoring the performer and displaying a high level of confidence in his/her abilities. 

While this is something most managers might be aware of to a certain extent, it requires a high level of commitment in putting it to action. If you can do so, you are on your way to building a high-performance team and helping your performers be what they didn’t think they were capable of. What’s more? They will look back and thank you for it!

Finally, key questions managers need to consistently start asking themselves:

  • Am I serious about setting goals for my team and doing a good job of it?

  • Am I explicitly communicating expectations in addition to their goals?

  • Am I periodically reviewing performance and communicating higher expectations to my team?

It’s a funny thing about life; if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                   - W. Somerset Maugham

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Topics: Employee Engagement, Leadership, C-Suite

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