Managing Others' Expectations of You

By John Baldoni

“What’s my job?”

That’s a question that many managers ask themselves, usually not out loud though for fear of looking like a fool. Nonetheless the question is a real one. It has been my experience in working with many companies in many different industries that employees are often uninformed about their roles and responsibilities. Yes, employees know their job specifics and often perform as well as they can. What they lack is context, that is, “Why am I doing what I am doing and how does it affect the organization?” Employees who are so uninformed are not dull headed lackeys; they are bright, energetic people whose management has not bothered to explain their value to the organization.

Expectations lost in the details

For example, employees in purchasing are constantly asked to implement a host of new parameters to conform to new rules and regulations, some spawned by the Sarbannes Oxley Act of 2002. Employees go by the rules, but they end up following procedures that feel more like trapdoors and blind alleys than an updated process. When suppliers complain, purchasing agents are powerless to make adjustments and do a poor job of communicating why. Suppliers end up frustrated and angry, and purchasers feel betrayed by a system they have been hired to implement. The net result is that the company loses experienced suppliers and alienates the very employees whose job it is to ensure conformity with established standards.

The challenge of “what’s my job?” is one that Denison Consulting, a leading organizational culture survey company, has studied and measured. As founding partner Bill Neale puts it, “In our research, we have found that managers typically judge an employee’s performance on a far different set of standards than others do in the workplace.” Based on survey data of more than 1000 companies, the company has identified three sets of expectations, one for each constituency in the workplace: boss, direct report and peer. “If you’re serious about succeeding, however, the first order of business is becoming cognizant of the various expectations—both spoken and unspoken—you need to satisfy,” says Neale. Let’s take them one at a time.

What your boss expects. Keeping strategy aligned to the mission and goals is essential to fulfilling what the boss wants. “You can be the greatest team player” says Neale, “but if you ignore the organizational mission you will never satisfy the boss.” In other words, make certain that what you do is adding value to the enterprise. Focus on doing your job and ensuring that what you do is in line with corporate strategies. Conversations with the boss will help ensure that you stay in line with what the organization needs. Managers and employees have to be wary of the “boss’s boss” syndrome—when people get pulled off one project to do another project that may not always fulfill the mission but does make the “boss’s boss” look good. In this instance, employees are caught between fulfilling the mission, i.e., doing the right job for the right reasons, or fulfilling the super boss’s reputation, i.e., the wrong job for the wrong reasons. This happens every day but smart managers pull their employees aside and let them know what is happening and why. This may not preserve organizational mission but it does enhance boss employee relations.

What your direct report expects. Teamwork, backed by proper delegation of authority and responsibility, is what people who work for you want. But that’s not all; they also expect you to assist in their professional development. Delivering on this expectation is not simply a nice thing to do; it’s a business imperative. “If you truly don’t engage the folks that work for you,” says Neale, “you’re not likely to fully leverage their energies and talents.” One way to deliver on this expectation is to coach your employees regularly. That involves continuous two way communication about the job, your performance and where you might go from here.

What your colleague expects. This expectation is not so straightforward. After all, some peers may regard you “as a competitor,” says Neale. That aside, peers “do place a high value on flexibility” as well as an ability to influence across borders, break roadblocks and “push for alignment.” For example, “go-to people,” folks who can get the job done, are highly valued for their ability to pull together the right team to accomplish goals. And those who share the credit with the team are valued even more.

Delivering on expectations

Knowing expectations is one thing; acting on them is another. This is especially true in times of flux. Executives are fond of acting swiftly; they find valor and sometimes reward in bold action. But they do so at great risk, especially when they act counter to an established corporate culture. Larry Johnston found this out the hard way. As CEO of Albertson’s, he was challenged with maximizing growth opportunities that the supermarket company had gained when it bought other grocery chains. Johnston is a hard charger. He tried to imbue the folksy Albertson’s that prided itself on being a “neighborhood store” grocer with some of the hard edged practices he had learned from his years at GE. Layoffs followed, competition from Wal-Mart continued, and financial returns disappointed investors. Early in 2006, Albertson’s itself was sold to another grocery chain.

There will be times, however, when expectations arise that a leader cannot fulfill. Such a thing happens on the battlefield with regularity because expectations meet with a reality that is unplanned. That situation occurs in the boardroom also. Robert J. Ayling, former CEO of British Airways, is largely credited with revitalizing the carrier in the late 1990s. However, as told by Michael Useem in his fine book, Leading Up, Ayling lost the confidence of his board when conditions soured in 1999. Ayling assumed that his position was safe but he was wrong. Considered personable one on one with people, he was considered just the opposite in groups. Slowly his reputation for acting unilaterally got the better of him, and the board took the first opportunity it could to sack him.

Expectations are reality in the workplace. It is up to managers to stay tuned to people above, below and equal to them at all times. Dan Denison of Denison Consulting says, “Not only is this the politically astute thing to do, it is the wise thing to do because by networking with people throughout the organization you get a feel for what is going on, what is not going on and what needs improvement, change or should be let alone.” Managers cannot do it alone, however; expectations are shaped by business reality as well as the organizational culture. But when managers and employees know what is expected of them, the question, “What is my job?” shifts from one of questioning to one of providing direction. That is, the person asking it can use the answer to determine what he or she needs to do not to satisfy the whim of a superior but rather to define how he or she can add value to the enterprise.

John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as nonprofits including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker as well as the author of six books on leadership; the latest is How Great Leaders Get Great Results. His leadership resource website is www.johnbaldoni.com.

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