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While working with a client on managing an overwhelming workload, we explored ways to cut fire fighting. When I'm brought in, I look at two aspects: Reaction and Prevention. Reaction is symptomatic treatment of an acute situation. In this case we cover how to best manage the current reality - setting up workflow systems, for example. This provides relief and some breathing room. Then we cover prevention - reducing the causes of the (often chronic) condition. One dimension I bring up is the managing of expectations. Here are a few examples:

  • Do you have a response time policy? Is a 24 hour one for email possible? Related: Depressurize your email with a 24 hour response time and What's your maximum response time?

  • Are you expecting a certain outcome in a ... plan, project, conversation, goal, or relationship? This will definitely lead to suffering (a Think, Try, Learn principle).

  • Have you noticed that good phone customer service tells you how long to expect waiting, when you're put on hold, and what's the plan ("I'm transferring you to...") Do you do this for others?

  • Are your expectations of what you can personally accomplish realistic? How about others'?

  • Do you do "blue sky" planning, say for travel? "Expect delays" isn't bad advice!

I'm curious: What expectations have you created in the minds of your clients, coworkers, and yourself? How were those created? Implicitly?

Reader Comments (2)

This is such an important topic. I have a few comments:

. I like the way you turn this issue inside out, as you are so skilled at doing: typically, conversation is focused on identifying the expectations of clients and meeting them (or, nowadays, "exceeding" them). Full stop. But the other side of the equation -- what expectations have I established among the people I'm responsible to -- is the actual context in which people live their lives.

. There is a big difference between people who work for companies and people who run their own companies. Employees in service companies have two sets of bosses -- customers and supervisors -- both of whom have expectations that employees need to meet. Business owners have one set of bosses: customers.

. "Managing expectations" is a very tricky, very difficult undertaking. It requires a lot of practice and a lot of skill. There is much more here than meets the eye. It's tempting to think that the main component of managing expectations is learning to say no. The 4-Hour Work Week spends a lot of time talking about this. But there's much more to it than that.

. I have been self-employed for 15 years, and in talking to friends who are employees, the compromises that one must make as an employee are a source of endless bewilderment and consternation to me. There is a lot to say about this. But one observation that astounds me is the degree to which bosses fail to make their expectations of their employees explicitly clear, and -- even more importantly -- the degree to which employees do not ask what is expected of them. The general rule seems to be: I expect you to do whatever I ask you to do. Full stop.

. The higher up the administrative ladder you go, the more true this lack of accountability seems to be. Perhaps higher compensation makes this bearable, but among entrepreneurs I know, their reason for leaving an organization and striking out on their own often seems to be a desire for a tangible connection between the work they do and SOME outcome.

. I don't understand why more professionals don't have employment contracts that draw a crystal clear line between expectations and compensation. I know, for example, two doctors who work without employment contracts with the hospitals who employ them. If you were to write an employment contract for yourself, what exactly would it say?

. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Wall Street jobs are a good example of an entire profession which runs on explicit expectations. Clearly, when too narrow, the unanticipated consequences are ruinous. But they get a lot done, and many of us can't say as much. Imagine being given a job with the following expectation: I expect you to protect our company from the consequences of excessive risk. Imagine taking on this role in, say, one's marriage: my job is to creat a happy 40-year marriage, which includes protecting it from the risk of financial ruin, children who hate their parents, sexual boredom, as well as nurturing my spouses development in the fulfillment of his or her dreams.

. Fierce Conversations is a great book to read in this context, because the author gives such concrete advise about making expectations explicit. This is not a subject for the faint-of-heart, but the tools she provides are powerful and can be applied immediately.

October 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDan Owen

As usual, great insights, Dan. Thanks so much. I'll let your comment stand without a response.

October 16, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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