Saturday, July 13th, 2024

Managing Employee Expectations

Part 2

David Drennan

Managing Negative Expectations

No-one likes to communicate bad news, but sometimes it has to be done. That's a situation that needs quite different treatment if you're going to manage expectations effectively.

Generally, when people have been expecting some negative event in their lives, anything better than what was expected will bring feelings of relief. I well remember in my early thirties having a consistent pain in my stomach that convinced me I probably had cancer, since my father had died of the disease just a few years before. My daughter was just two at the time, and I thought 'I'm not going to have the chance of seeing her grow up'. It was a depressing thought. Wow, was I relieved when my doctor told me it was something quite simple. When I got back home, I sat back in the chair with a great sigh of relief, and was mightily grateful.

Most negative events are not exactly life and death affairs, but the expectations rules are the same : anything better than people's worst expectations will bring feelings of relief and gratitude; but the degree to which events are worse than expected will bring increasing feelings of disappointment, upset, anger, and protest. So now we can show the full expectations spectrum, both positive and negative.

For managers, the message is clear : events which match or exceed employees' expectations will result in general peace and goodwill. But those which fall short will produce reactions of disappointment and protest. But what happens when you think you cannot match employee expectations, or you have something to announce which may come as a nasty surprise? There are only two alternatives if you want to avoid trouble :

  • Improve the content of the announcement until it does match expectations

  • Take time to prepare employee expectations, or reduce them to a level where you can announce

Implementing Difficult Decisions

A simple but interesting example illustrates the point well. One well-known company had been shocked in the past when it decided to increase its cafeteria prices. Employees protested and immediately declared a boycott. They loudly catcalled those who went to fetch meals, deliberately moved away from tables if diners approached with a tray, and made great play of bringing in their own food and drinks.

Several years later the managing director still remembered the episode and was distinctly apprehensive when his H. R. manager told him the subsidy was now out of control, and further price increases would have to be made. He assured him it could all be done without trouble or the usual 30% fall-off in meals take-up. The M.D. was still sceptical but let the H. R. manager go ahead. Fortunately, he knew something about managing expectations.

First, a notice was posted saying that the cafeteria subsidy had risen to 'intolerably high levels' and that a 'substantial increase' would be required soon. The notice deliberately gave no further details. Inevitably rumours started to circulate and the pessimists began to make everyone expect the worst. (By the way, this sort of 'trial balloon' enables feelings to be tested and avoid making an announcement which could misfire embarrassingly.)

Having allowed time for the message to percolate over a week or so, a second notice then appeared saying the company had managed to confine the increase to only 10%. It also showed that, despite the increase, the price of most dishes would be not more than the cost of the uncooked food and gave a number of examples. In addition, the increase in prices was not to take place until after the summer holiday shutdown. For the following three weeks everyone felt somehow they were getting a bargain and, when work resumed, prices exactly matched expectations. The feared 30% fall-off in meals take-up simply did not occur, and the whole process went through quite smoothly. Even the M.D. was pleased.

Announcing Unwelcome News

There come times in every manager's life, of course, when there is no alternative but to communicate bad news. Managers often have tough decisions to take, which they know employees are not going to like very much. But they cannot afford simply to chicken out, otherwise they are in effect no longer managing their business. In such instances the answer is to prepare employees for any unpleasant changes stage by stage, and to treat those involved with genuine concern and sensitivity.

For example, you may have redundancies or even a plant closure to announce. Unless something dramatic, like a takeover or the loss of a huge order, has occurred, no-one will really be expecting it. If you make the announcement suddenly, you will not only provoke hostile and energetic reaction inside the company, but possibly active support from trade unions, local authorities, Members of Parliament, newspapers etc. outside the company. That simply compounds an already difficult situation.

Some companies choose to announce such things without notice on the basis that it 'gets the thing over with as soon as possible', and avoids complicating matters with protracted union discussions. But that demonstrates very clearly that the company is much more concerned for its financial numbers than for its people. And those who are left behind find themselves asking 'Could it be us next?' Such nasty surprises send quivers of anxiety all round the business and employees feel they cannot trust their own company. Employees have long memories when it comes to such unpleasant shocks; they often harbour the resentment for years. So the quick-fire solution is bought at a heavy long-term price.

Such difficult events can be managed well, however. One consumer products manufacturing company concluded they should close down an ageing plant and move the manufacture of the plant's products to another site. Managers made the announcement to the employees in groups, working from a prepared brief, and were able to tell them that they would each be seen individually to talk about options - either moving to the new site, taking a different job at the existing site, or redundancy payment terms and help to find another job.

Every employee involved was then interviewed by two managers (who already held data on the skills and job experience of every person affected). In each case the matter was talked through over a period of days until they had a solution for each. The shutdown worked out well because every person in the plant knew what they were going to be doing when the plant closed, and the individual concern shown by the company exceeded most expectations.

Some Words of Advice

Although expectations can be raised quickly, for example by a simple announcement or even by an unchecked rumour, shifting already established expectations requires time, especially if that needs to be towards the negative end of the spectrum. In the case of the cafeteria prices mentioned earlier, the H. R. Manager gave people time to get used to the idea of higher prices before the announcement became definite and specific. As a rule of thumb, bad news should only be made definite when this is judged to fall short of the worst expectations of 80% of your people.

If lay-offs are a real possibility, give employees fair warning to allow minds time to adjust. Making the first announcement drastic and specific simply guarantees to produce a nasty surprise and evoke reactions of shock and protest. However, if a vague early warning statement creates so much insecurity that they prefer to hear the whole truth, level with them if the trouble is more than temporary. Don't be afraid to tell them the worst that could happen - at least that way there will be some feeling of relief if subsequent events don't turn out as bad as their worst expectations. And unless there has been an uncaring attitude in the past, or the situation has been repeated too often, you will be surprised at the support and co-operation you receive in response.

On a more personal level, there is a good piece of advice which can be very helpful when one is facing a particularly difficult situation. Think of the worst that can happen. Articulate it. Write it down and look at it. Imagine it specifically and get used to the idea that it might just happen. Then take the next difficult step. Accept that it will happen. See yourself accepting it stoically and dealing with it soberly and steadily. Once you have genuinely accepted the worst that could happen, anything that turns out better will be a bonus. If your worst expectations cannot be exceeded, you will feel less pain and shock, and you will experience relief if things are not in fact as bad as expected. You will be surprised at the positive motivation and calm you can derive from the process. Try it.

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Most of us can well recall episodes in our lives when things turned out so much better than we ever dared hope, and what a great feeling it was. Unfortunately the disappointments are also well remembered, and often linger longer. The fact is expectations pervade every part of life, our personal lives, our work lives, our organizational lives. The same events can produce either feelings of pleasure or disappointment, of goodwill or resentment, of acceptance or protest. In organisations, that will all depend on just how expectations have been managed. The principles are simple, but the effects are powerful. If managers are to handle their people relationships effectively, they not only need to know about the Laws of Expectations, but to use them to positive effect every day.

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