Tip #666:  Are Your Performance Expectations Reasonable?

“If you align expectations with reality, you will never be disappointed.”  Terrell Owens

There are many reasons why employees are unable to meet performance expectations:

  1. The expectation is not realistic in relation to the employee’s skills, experience or position in the decision-making hierarchy.
  1. The expectations are too vague.
  1. The time limits for the task are unrealistic.
  1. The manager mistakenly assumes that the employee has the necessary knowledge and resources to perform the task.
  1. The manager does not check to see and factor in what the employee is working on at the time and what other deadlines and projects s/he may have.
  1. The manager unrealistically expects the employee to work as long and as hard as the manager does.
  1. The manager expects the job not only to be done, but to be done to an impossible standard.
  1. The manager implicitly knows what performance s/he wants but is not able to explicitly state the expectations in clear and understandable language.
  1. The manager keeps changing his or her performance expectations.
  1. The performance expectations are too subjective, meaning that the manager will “know” acceptable performance when s/he “sees” it.

Managers need to set reasonable and achievable expectations for the work that their employees perform. These performance expectations should be specific, objective, observable, measurable, realistic and time-bound.

There are five strategies that can help managers set expectations that will allow their employees to perform better and reduce their own frustration and stress in the work place.

Strategy #1Know your employees’ capabilities.

It is important to understand the capabilities of your employees so that you do not set your expectations unrealistically high or unnecessarily low. It is perfectly acceptable for you to give a stretch assignment to help an employee develop new skills. However, if you do, you need to lower your expectations in comparison with what you would expect of an employee who already possesses those skills.

Sometimes you will need to build your employee’s sense of comfort and confidence that s/he has the skills and ability to perform the assigned task.

Strategy #2:  Establish a performance expectation that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely.

It helps to use the SMART standard when establishing a performance expectation. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely.

  • The expectation is specific and stated in clear and unambiguous terms.
  • Performance can be measured objectively according to a pre-determined and applicable measurement.
  • The employee has the resources necessary to attain the performance expectation.
  • The performance expectation is relevant, which means it is consistent with existing policy, precedent and protocol. If it is not consistent, there should be a clear and compelling reason for it.
  • The time it is due is specified.

Strategy #3:  Establish a realistic deadline.

It is important to consider what you can reasonably expect of an employee before you set a deadline. There are many factors that can affect your decision about the length of time it should take for the employee to complete the task. For example: the employee’s current work load and deadlines; the complexity of the task; if the employee has performed the task before or is new to the assignment; and the availability of the resources necessary to support performance of the task.

If you need the task performed within a specific deadline that has no flexibility, then review the employee’s current workload, rearrange priorities and deadlines for other tasks, and/or focus in on what absolutely needs to be done by the finite deadline.

Strategy #4: Avoid projecting what you expect of yourself onto others.

You may have very high expectations for yourself. You may work long hours or be a super achiever who needs little sleep or limits your social and personal life so you can outperform those around you. Just because you have set these expectations for yourself and you choose to make personal sacrifices to meet them does not mean you can expect others to act the same way.

You may also have a set idea regarding how to execute a task. You need to allow the employee the flexibility to select his or her own approach as long as it will achieve the performance goal.

Make sure that you set expectations that are realistic for the individual who will be performing the task, not those you set for yourself.

Strategy #5:  Do not expect perfection.

If you are perfectionist, it is probable that you expect perfection from others. Don’t do that. This can be seriously damaging to your work and personal relationships.

Accept that perfection is difficult if not impossible to achieve. If you set expectations that high, you will always be disappointed. Since your employees will never be successful, they will begin to feel like failures and their morale will plummet. It is possible that you will end up having to perform the task because no one else meets or wants to meet your expectations.

Set expectations that satisfy these simple criteria: they are reasonable, necessary and sufficient.

May your learning be sweet.


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