How to deal with employees’ expectations

By David Kuneš

When an employee starts a new job, she has a rough idea of how it will work. She knows what kind of work she should expect. Based on her recruitment experience, she anticipates how her supervisor will treat her and what she will do. She also expects some company culture and team dynamics. She formed these expectations during the recruitment process. But other expectations of her are not apparent at first glance—those related to her previous experience, personality traits, and attitudes.

Similarly, company representatives have specific demands and expectations of their employees. On the one hand, these are the rules of the game, which are clearly enshrined in the employment contract. But then there are other unwritten rules and expectations. For example, if necessary, the employee will stay at work later to complete an important task. Or that she will engage in activities outside of work. That she will actively participate and assist colleagues in furthering their professional growth. These expectations often go unspoken, yet employees are evaluated against them.

The problem arises when these hidden expectations of the employee are not in line with the employer’s expectations. I’ll give you an example: I wanted to change the world when I started as a researcher years ago. I expected every day to invent new things at work that would make people’s lives easier. But instead, I was faced with reality: few research projects ever translated into actual products. Most of the time, it stalled somewhere during development, whether due to technical problems or budget constraints. So for the first couple of years, I worked on research projects that ended after a few months, and I frequently didn’t understand the reason.

Expectation gap

My manager at the time expected me to quickly shake off each project and dive headfirst into the following problem. But neither he nor I ever directly communicated our expectations. Instead, I complained to colleagues who had similarly unpleasant experiences, and my manager, in turn, perceived my attitude negatively. The gap in expectations between us widened, as described in the book The Employee Experience.

The gap between employee and employer expectations is a frequent cause of low productivity, poor work behavior, and early employment terminations. By complaining to each other, my colleagues and I only reinforced the conviction that our work was not meaningful. Which, of course, affected our work-related attitude. We were reluctant to take on new projects because we “knew” it wouldn’t work this time either. We stopped realizing ourselves at work and instead directed our energy and skills somewhere outside the work environment.

The Employee Experience book describes how this expectation gap, so-called “Expectation Alignment Dysfunction,” develops. Authors list six basic faults that contribute to it:

  • Lack of clarity --> employer does not communicate rules, work standards, opportunities, benefits, and other essential things
  • Inconsistency --> rules change depending on the situation, or each employee is measured by a different yardstick
  • Overpromising --> employer sets high expectations that can't be met
  • Asymmetrical expectations --> employers do not align expectations with employees
  • Secrecy --> too often, decisions are made behind closed doors
  • Unchecked rumors --> information is passed between employees and distorted through gossip and whispers

Solution

And how do we work it out? In the book mentioned above, the authors offer a few simple rules that can go some way to closing the expectation gap:

Measure what employees think and expect on a daily basis. Open a secure, even anonymous communication channel to collect feedback. Check your expectations: ask employees what they expect from the job. In turn, communicate straight what you expect from them. Treat employees in line with the company brand communication. And most importantly, communicate comprehensibly, directly, and clearly.

Based on the book The Employee Experience, Maylett & col. (2017)