The “Expectations Theory” of Management

Having mentioned this theory in my last post about micromanagers, I thought I’d expand upon it here for your reading enjoyment and comment.

There’s an old saying that goes, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” In the corporate world, that is not exactly true. It’s the first impression that gets one in the door and hired all right but after that there are a myriad of impressions that will ultimately determine the expectations that will persist throughout the employment relationship.

The theory is quite simple in concept but can be quite destructive in practice. It goes like this:

When employees or managers are hired or promoted, there are certain expectations that the hiring authority has in the candidate they have selected. The “probationary” period, whether explicitly disclosed or just tacitly understood is a key timeframe during which the new hire makes a more lasting impression on the hiring authority and sets the stage for the long term expectations of performance that will be experienced down the road. It is also a key timeframe for the employee to determine the hiring authority’s reaction to their performance.

Here’s a slightly oversimplified example of how this works:

John was hired because he made a good impression on his new superior. During his probationary period, John performed at the minimum acceptable level. His work was disappointing but tolerable. He had also quickly developed a reputation a being a class clown and a kook. But the job was getting done and John provided some entertainment value. That impression created an expectation in his superior’s mind.

Betty was hired for the same reason. She turned in some solid performances during her probationary period. She quickly gained a reputation as a good, steady, reliable performer. That impression also created an expectation in her superior’s mind.

Every six months or so, particularly around the annual performance appraisal period, John would pick up the pace and perhaps hit one or two home runs. Since this was not expected from John, his achievements received high visibility and acclaim from his superior. After the hoopla subsided, he would revert to his old ways. John became a known commodity. He had it made in the shade.

Betty proved to be more than reliable and even gained the nickname “steady” Betty. But because her performance consistently met that initial expectation, there was no acclaim, no parade and no hoopla. Betty’s reward was having more and more tasks and duties pushed at her by her superior. She quietly accepted the work and accomplished it with aplomb. Then something happened. Betty’s workload reached the tipping point and her performance began to falter a little here and there. “What happened to ‘steady’ Betty?” came the hue and cry from her superior, “We had such high expectations from her.” Instead of getting to the root cause of Betty’s issues, her superior recommended counseling on how to “work smarter.” After that episode, Betty had to constantly prove that she was up to the task.

Please note that it matters not at what organizational level (except the “executive” of course) or functional area John or Betty were hired into. The “Expectations Theory” holds true for line workers as well as middle level managers. It seems that the long term expected performance levels differ according to the results of the probationary period. More will always be expected from a high achiever while less will be expected from a low achiever.

This all seems logical enough but it is the superior’s reaction when the expectations are not met that is at issue here. The degree of the reaction seems totally disproportionate. It’s as if a little “good news” emanating from consistently mediocre performance is treated much differently than a little “bad news” from consistently excellent performance. In the example mentioned above, both John and Betty experienced a reaction due to their deviance from expectations. John’s was very positive and reinforced his expectations that he could get by with his performance. Betty certainly seemed to receive more of a negative reaction even though she had consistently turned in excellent performance up until the tipping point. What kind of reinforcement did Betty receive? It’s all about the unintended consequences of the expectations.

Have superiors been conditioned to treat any “good news” as heroics and any “bad news” as indictments? Does an over reliance on good expectations create such a disproportionate reaction to disappointment? Is it intellectual laziness on the part of the superior? Is it just human nature? Whatever it is, it needs to be recognized. The John’s of the world will always be with us. The Betty’s are hard to find.

I have personally seen this time and time again during my thirty years in management.

Does all of this sound too cynical? If it does, remember where you read it!

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