by Leon Rosenshein

Managing Expectations

A suggestion by a general to a private is an order. An order from a 2nd Lieutenant to a Master Sergeant is a suggestion.

    — Unknown

I cannae change the laws of physics! I've got to have thirty minutes!

     — Scotty (eight minutes before the Enterprise might be destroyed)

Although they come at it from different directions, both of those are about expectation management. Whether you’re asking/demanding something, or being asked/told to do something, the expectations, on both sides, are defined not just by the words, but by the situation.

When a general walks into a briefing room and asks someone to get a cup of coffee, he or she probably expects to get one, but doesn’t expect someone to stop doing what they’re doing and get the coffee. But chances are that the soldier fresh out of boot camp will do just that. Because their expectations are different. The opposite happens when the butter-bar fresh out of West Point tells the Sergeant Major what to do. The Sergeant Major doesn’t drop everything and do it, but instead explains the situation to the 2LT. Meanwhile, in the mid-2200s, Montgomery Scott was viewed as a miracle worker by telling people he couldn’t change the laws of physics.

But what has any of that got to do with work? It’s about managing expectations. It’s about how you handle the unexpected but foreseeable future. And it’s about understanding the impact your position relative to another person changes how what you say is heard.

One good example is what happens when your understanding of the situation changes. Your estimate of the time to complete should change as well. It might go up or down. What you do with that information is the important part. If you think you’re going to be finished sooner say something. But also say something if you think it’s going to take longer. You don’t want to surprise anyone. What you’re doing is almost certainly a dependency of someone else’s. They’ve planned for it to arrive at a certain time. They have an expectation. And now it’s wrong.

Think about how you’ve felt when someone missed a deadline. No one likes it. But the sooner you find out about it, the sooner you can adjust your plan. Or, if the timing is the critical factor you can discuss ways to have something done in time. It might be less than ideal, but it can still add value. There are lots of ways to start that conversation, but that’s a topic for a different time.

And that’s effective expectation management.