What do you expect?


What do you expect?
As businesses run leaner, leaders need to be very clear with employees on expectations

By Jo Hawkins Donovan, for SBT

Recently I was talking with about 100 savvy women executives on the topic, "Time and Technology." After my presentation, one participant — we’ll call her Margaret — talked with me a bit about a challenge she faced. She was in a position with a high level of responsibility. The organization was "trimming" costs, reducing staff, getting lean and mean, as they say. The message the owner conveyed to the "survivors" was: "Now more will be expected of you!"
Margaret appeared to be highly professional and sharp. She was anxious about her CEO’s expectations. How could she do more? She already was putting in 60+ hours a week, and delivering accurate and timely results. She had a conversation with her direct boss about this dilemma, and found that her boss was just as anxious as she was about the heightened set of expectations floating around.
In the presentation, I had talked a bit about the ways that the rapid-fire advances in technology have helped us all be more productive. We can get a product out the door much faster with all the high-tech help at our command. (Of course that doesn’t help us decide which product we want to get out the door, among other things.) We can respond instantly via e-mail, rather than spending an hour drafting a letter. We can even do all that e-mail work at home at 5 o’clock in the morning, or midnight, often unaware of the fact that we’re adding another hour or so to our workday.
With the increased productivity, though, have come huge increases in the pressure to perform. That’s what Margaret was experiencing – pressure to perform beyond a level she could even imagine unless she gave up sleeping altogether.
She was afraid that if she didn’t meet those expectations, she would be in line at the unemployment office. We chatted a few minutes about steps she might take to reduce her anxiety and get more clarity on what the CEO meant by "expecting more".
Driving back to my office, I thought about how prevalent this situation is in today’s business organizations. I’ve heard stories from executives who are doing their darndest at work, and trying to spend some of their time doing other things important to them, like attending kids’ soccer and football games.
That was the case with one man who felt like expectations about his productivity jumped a few notches when a young, single executive came into his department who came earlier and stayed later than anyone else – and put in some weekend time at the office to boot!
My client was afraid that the business owner’s expectations would change, afraid the owner would think, "Wow, wonder what we could accomplish if everyone were as committed to the job as this new hire."
I’ve heard many clients express confusion about their bosses’ expectations. Of course, we talk about asking for more clarity, but sometimes they just get more confusion from that conversation with the boss.
Perhaps it’s worthwhile for leaders to do some snooping around their organizations, to see whether their expectations are clearly understood.
It is always a good idea for those in leadership to be acutely aware of language they use; for example, "Now more will be expected of you!" This kind of statement can throw employees into a tailspin. If more is expected, it would help to have conversations about priorities. What can be eliminated from the list of responsibilities or projects? What can be delegated? What kind of support does each employee need in order to shift gears? How will they know if expectations are met?
Setting appropriate expectations is very tricky. Leaders want to set expectations that engage and stretch employees.
On the other hand, if employees feel the expectations are confusing, overwhelming or impossible to meet, the bar is too high or too unclear and they will be unmotivated. It’s a delicate balance. Guess that’s one reason that leadership is an art, an art that we can keep refining forever – and that’s an expectation that business owners must set for themselves.

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Jo Hawkins Donovan has a coaching and psychotherapy firm in Whitefish Bay, and can be reached at 414-332-0300, or via e-mail at jo@hawkinsdonovan.com. The firm’s Web site is www.hawkinsdonovan.com. Hawkins Donovan will respond to your questions in this column. Her column appears in every other issue of SBT.

Oct. 3, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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