COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | TOM JONES

Expectations can mean difference between business success, failure

Every expectation is followed by a response, which is measured by time.

The time factor can encompass the few minutes you take to give directions, the months you spend training new employees, or the years you invest in building a business.

If your expectations are high and you're looking forward to a positive response, you want the time line to be short.

Remember, as a child, excitedly counting the days before Christmas, holidays and birthdays?

Even as working adults we eagerly look forward to weekends and vacations.

But, what if your expectations are low because the perceived response is potentially negative or difficult to accomplish?

A functional reaction would be to prepare for the unpleasant consequences and strive to get it over with quickly.

A dysfunctional response, on the other hand, would be to postpone the undesirable task for as long as you could.

Getting management to lower or change expectations is one method dysfunctional employees use to avoid potentially negative responses.

This tends to happen when you set expectations that dysfunctional employees fear are too difficult to match.

If that strategy doesn't work, they might attempt to get the time line extended, hoping in the interim that you'll either modify your demands or forget your original objective entirely.

Repeatedly putting things off is a characteristic of a dysfunctional person. That is not to say that delaying an outcome is always dysfunctional.

There are frequently worthy reasons to extend a time line or drop an idea altogether.

Perhaps the additional time truly would result in a better or more improved response. But, if the reason for the delay is suspect, you may be dealing with what I call a fictitious frontier.

Fictitious frontiers are illusive barriers that dysfunctional employees construct when they wish to put off doing something or want to avoid dealing with undesirable or unknown consequences. New challenges can be scary and threatening to dysfunctional employees.

When they aren't sure what you want or fear that they can't come up with what you expect, they'll create a diversion that postpones their need to respond.

One example of a fictitious frontier is "the September syndrome." It normally starts about May or June, depending on when the schools let out in your part of the country.

When you assign a new project, employees respond by suggesting that we "wait until September when the kids are back in school and everyone is back from vacation."

"After the new year," is another example. You begin to hear that phrase in October starting with the back-to-back federal holidays.

When you ask for a quick turn-around on a job, you get responses like, "Everyone will be busy with the holidays coming up. Why don't I wait until after the new year?" Or, "It's too late to finish this before the holidays. I'll start on it after the new year."

One way to separate a fictitious frontier from a real time impediment is to work through your expectations and responses with your employees. Comparing expectations helps everyone to focus on a common outcome.

That realization was made clear to me while observing the interactions among surgery teams in a large hospital. I noticed that the nurses gathered around the bulletin board each morning as the daily surgery schedule was posted.

In addition to looking for room assignments, they were checking to see which surgeons had been assigned to which teams.

I overheard the nurses commenting on those doctors they liked and those they didn't.

At first I assumed that their responses were based on personality or gender, but such was not the case. When asked, the nurses said they liked and preferred to work with those doctors who made their expectations known.

When similarly questioned, the surgeons stated that they "liked" certain nurses for much of the same reasons.

When the nurses and surgeons understood each other's expectations, they were inspired to work in harmony. As a team they prepared for each operation with high expectations for themselves and, more importantly, for their patients.

Matching expectations is neither an art nor a science. It is more like a process-one that unfolds in interconnected stages.

The time line from the start of the process (the Expectation) to the finish (the Response) is always going to be impacted by Situations, Behaviors and Feelings.

Sometimes very little of this process can be controlled. But an understanding of each aspect of it can be used, in turn, to help everyone involved to better understand (and in some cases change) either the expectation or the response, or both.


Jones is a management consultant and award-winning author of "Help! I'm Surrounded By Idiots" and "If It's Broken, You Can Fix It."

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