How to avoid managing expectations badly

It is well-understood that to be perceived to be successful at work, you will need to engage in “expectation management”.

In other words, you will need to keep your boss and other key stakeholders informed of developments in advance (especially things aren’t quite going to plan), so that nothing comes as a nasty shock.

The recommendations are, therefore:

  • to be very up front about the things that could go wrong;

  • keep communicating about progress, so people have warning far in advance about potential problems

  • ensure that expectations are reasonable from the start

  • make sure, in essence, to “underpromise and overdeliver”.

However, there is a risk to this.

If you go too far down this route, it can result in a different set of problems.

This article outlines how to avoid taking “expectation management” too far.

Risk scoping

It is good project management to plan for risks: to identify them in advance to make sure they are clear to all.

However, there is a downside to this - excessive focus on risks can have negative results:

  • it can be demotivating for people if all they hear is the possible negatives. Why bother trying if there are so many things that could go wrong?

  • it can make it appear as if you are trying to escape the responsibility for these negatives, or pass them onto others

  • and it can be demotivating for you: it can seem as if the task you are about to undertake is impossible.

To avoid this: make sure you structure your risk gathering process within a positive framework.

Make it clear that this is an important part of planning to succeed: only by identifying all the possible pitfalls in advance can you plan to avoid them.

And keep yourself focussed on the positive vision of what you want to deliver!

Monitor progress

Principle two of effective expectation management: communication.

This means sufficiently frequent, and sufficiently detailed communication (ideally based on a structure, such as a document setting out where you want to get to, and how far away you are from it; or a risk management spreadsheet; or a list of tasks completed and tasks done - whatever process works for you).

However, there is a downside to this as well: if this communication happens TOO frequently, or is TOO detailed, it stops being effective.

People get bored, stop listening, and stop taking notice. It either becomes like background noise, or it is perceived as nagging.

Either way, it is not productive.

To avoid this: find the lightest-touch possible way of monitoring progress.

If you have to have meetings, make them as short as possible, as infrequent as possible, and involving as few people as possible (try stand-up meetings, or schedule them for only half an hour).

Ideally include a very simple structure so that it is quickly evident whether work is on track, or if not, which elements are behind.

And makes sure that where things are going awry that you have a plan of how to get them back on track.

Set expectations well

One way to avoid bad outcomes is to make sure the expectations of a piece of work are reasonable, deliverable, and clear from the outset.

This means all parties involved signed up to something in writing that all agree is deliverable within a certain timeframe and using specific resources.

In the context of “expectation management”, this is an opportunity to ensure you “underpromise” so that you can later “overdeliver”.

However, as always, there is a downside to this: if you push back on expectations, you can seem unwilling, unambitious, and a bad team-player.

This is obviously not helpful to your reputation…

To avoid this: take time to think about what deliverables are achievable before any discussion between key parties.

Propose this as a way forward, making a positive case for why this is the right outcome (with the right deadline and the right resource allocation).

This means you are seen as constructive, rather than trying to row back on what has been suggested.

If additional tasks are included, ask for time to consider the implications rather than saying “no” on the spot.

Then you will be able to, if necessary, construct a positive argument as to why those tasks shouldn’t be included (they will take the focus away from the main deliverable, they will stretch resources too far).

But you will safeguard perception that you are constructive and positive.

So there you have three ways to avoid the negative aspects of excessive “expectation management”.

Good luck!


p.s. to further boost your effectiveness at work, get in touch to arrange a free intro call to find out how I can help:!

Things to do and consider

  • Consider your current methods of communication with your boss. How effective are they? Are they often based on a structure (ie an agreed list of things you need to cover regularly), or are they completely ad hoc? Do the meetings run over, or are they efficient? Come up with three ways you can improve your regular communication with your boss, and follow this method for when you need to manage expectations.